07.06.2022

"Europe and Asia are not separate theatres"

Raja Mohan answers four questions about the larger implications of the war in Ukraine on the Asia-Pacific region.

While western alliances have held firm in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is no doubt that it has challenged three pillars of the liberal world order- respect for territorial integrity of states, peaceful resolution of disputes, and the right to collective self-defence. Asian countries are paying close attention to the conflict, as Moscow’s reasoning for Ukraine’s invasions closely match Beijing’s increasingly muscular push for territorial control in the region. 

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.

First one to answer is Prof C. Raja Mohan, senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute in Delhi and visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies of the National University of Singapore.

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 has put a definitive end to the great power harmony that lasted nearly three decades since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The end of the Cold War between the West and Soviet Russia heralded a new geopolitical phase, in which nations could benefit from productive relations with all the major powers. Although inter-state tensions were growing among China, Europe, India, Japan, Russia and the US in recent years, the war in Ukraine has sharpened the divide among the major powers.

Moscow’s Ukraine invasion was preceded by the joint proclamation of a partnership “without limits” and “no forbidden areas” of cooperation between Russia and China. If Moscow and Beijing expected the West to be divided in responding to the invasion, they have been sorely mistaken, as the West quickly closed ranks in support of Ukraine. To be sure, there are significant differences in individual state responses to Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine but Western nations have broadly fallen in line, providing an unprecedented supply of arms and equipment to Ukrainian defenders amidst the invasion. The strategic unity of Europe and the United States, and the common purpose of a trans-Atlantic alliance is real and will likely endure for the foreseeable future.

Most countries in the Indo-Pacific region thought that the war in Europe is not a major concern to them. But the sweeping global consequences of the war in Ukraine—including energy and economic issues—have demonstrated the importance of addressing the issues raised by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Much of the Indo-Pacific does not want to “choose sides” between the Sino-Russian alliance and the West. But the ideals of neutrality, non-alignment, and multi-alignment have become harder to maintain as the war drags on.

 

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 framing of the Ukraine war as a breakdown of the “liberal order” is problematic. Russian aggression against Ukraine challenges the fundamental principles underlying any kind of international order. The tripod that upholds any order—liberal or otherwise—involves respect for territorial integrity of states, peaceful resolution of disputes, and the right to collective self-defence. Moscow contests Kiev’s rights on all these three fronts by claiming a historic right to absorb Ukraine into Russia, uses force to achieve that goal, and challenges Europe’s right to collective self-defence.

Beijing’s muscular approach to territorial disputes in the Western Pacific—in the East China Sea and South China Sea—as well as in the Himalayas is no different. Much like Russia in Ukraine, China violates the basic principles of international order in the Indo-Pacific by claiming historic rights and justifying their actions in the name of past victimhood. Beijing is applying violent means to ‘redeem’ its territorial claims against their neighbours and opposes any efforts by Asian states to strengthen their capacities for collective self-defence in partnership with the West.

 

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?

Three broad areas of cooperation between Asia and Europe stand out in the post-Ukraine world.  First is to acknowledge that the bet on multilateralism and collective security made at the end of the Cold War has failed. Due to the expansive ambitions and aggressive unilateralism of Russia and China, the war in Ukraine has compelled a shift from “collective security” to “collective defence” and from security multilateralism to plurilateral and minilateral initiatives.  

Second is to recognise Europe and Asia are not separate theatres but are actually deeply interconnected. The deepening alliance between Moscow and Beijing and their support for each other on key strategic issues underline the importance of security cooperation between the two continents.

Although both Europe and Asia will focus on securing their regions, there is much they can do to contribute to the other’s defences. For starters, both Europe and Asia can start by affirming the principle of territorial integrity of states in both the regions. If much of Asia is ambivalent about Russia’s Ukraine invasion, Europe has likewise been reluctant to criticise China’s aggressive acts in Asia. This must change.

Third is to build on the principle of territorial sovereignty that the Ukraine war has brought to the fore. Traditionally, Asia and the West tend to differ on this and other related issues. The bitter legacy of European imperialism in Asia has been reinforced by the Western claims that territorial sovereignty is passe in the 21st century.  Today, Asia and Europe have a genuine basis for transcending the post-colonial mistrust by reaffirming the centrality of territorial sovereignty and the rejection of violent change of borders. The rejection of Russian and Chinese imperial projects will end the long-standing temptation to view global issues through East-West or North-South prisms and provide a new political basis for strategic cooperation between Europe and Asia.

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

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