Asia’s growing sense of a European pull back since Ukraine

Lay Hwee Yeo answers questions about the larger implications of the war in Ukraine on the Asia-Pacific region.

While the Russian invasion of Ukraine is inarguably a violation of United Nations principles, there has not been significant pushback among countries in Asia, who see themselves as being mostly isolated from the conflict. Yet, there are fears that the European Union will be too focused on addressing the conflict to develop their burgeoning relationship with Asian nations, at a time when cooperation is becoming more of a necessity.

We spoke with senior members of the FES Asia Strategic Foresight Group about the larger implications the current situation in Ukraine has on the future global order, and in particular how it may play out and take form in the Asia-Pacific region. In this interview, Lay Hwee Yeo, Director of the European Union Centre in Singapore, shares her thoughts.

How does the war in Ukraine impact the global order and how does that play out in the Asia-Pacific region?

The war in Ukraine is a fundamental challenge to the principles enshrined by the United Nations after the end of World War II. In that sense, one could say it truly up-ends the post-WWII global order. However, the fact that 141 nations in the UN General Assembly voted against the Russian invasion shows that most nation-states want to preserve the sanctity of fundamental UN principles. The greatest caveat is of course the 35 countries that abstained, which included key countries such as China, India, and South Africa. Together, they made up almost half of the world’s population. The fact that the two largest Asian countries China – seen as authoritarian by the West, and India – often touted as the world’s largest democracy, refrained from openly criticising Russia, should give pause to the US framing of the war in Ukraine as one of autocracy against democracy. Such a framing would not resonate in the Asia-Pacific region and would limit the possibility of European and Asia-Pacific countries working constructively to rethink or reform the global order. Indeed, in some parts of the Asia-Pacific, the war in Ukraine has led to perceptions that this is a conflict in the far-flung West and at best, has nothing to do with their corner of the globe, and at worst, caused “collateral damage” to the rest of the world due to the rise of fuel and food prices around the world. 


What elements of the liberal world order would be important to the region? What would they want to keep and what would they want to change?

The region has never fully subscribed to the liberal world order fashioned by the “West” and led by the US at the end of the Cold War. While many countries in the region have benefitted from the liberal economic order, several countries (including ASEAN countries) continue to hold dear the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, and often push back against, for instance, the human rights agenda set by the West. Many Asia-Pacific states prefer to return to the very fundamental principles of the UN Charter which emphasizes sovereign equality, the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means, refraining from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, and non-interference in domestic affairs. As power diffuses and nationalism entrenches further as an important mobilising force, more countries in the region want to put real meaning and substance to the principle of sovereign equality that is enshrined in the UN. The call for UN reforms and reforming the veto power of the Security Council members is a sign of that.  The Prime Minister of Singapore said in the 27th International Conference on the Future of Asia that nations collaborate but also compete and hence we need a set of rules to constrain or incentivise certain behaviour, but we also need a balance of power for different forces, as not all countries will submit to western virtues is worth reflecting on as nations navigate the changes to the liberal world order.


Relatedly, what are priority areas in which Asia and Europe can continue to work together as a way of sustaining the collaboration in the face and likelihood of the latter turning more to its near neighbourhood in the coming years? 

There are indeed concerns that Europe’s attention would be so absorbed by the war in Ukraine and developments in NATO that they will reduce their engagement with Asian nations. Yet, it is precisely this moment that more efforts need to be paid to avoid fragmentation of the global economy into different “closed blocs”. Regionalisation will be the driving force in years to come. However, avoiding the spectre of regional blocs retreating into their own bubbles, decoupling from other blocs, and raising the risk of inter-bloc conflicts requires regional organisations to build bridges in order to promote inter-regional links. The diversification of supply chains also requires the EU to pay more attention, not less, to all key players in Asia. Europe and Asia should work together to encourage open, inclusive dialogue in fashioning a truly multilateral rule-based order – there are many areas of cooperation where the rules are still not quite defined – in climate change, on the digital economy, use of AI, etc. There must be a global coordination that accommodates and enables regional blocs to flourish and collaborate on addressing global challenges to raise the welfare of the people should be what Asia and Europe must work towards.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of FES.

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