08.12.2022

The parallels between Russia and China don’t wash in Asia, there is a need to bridge the gap

Diverging views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine dominated the conversations during the visit to Europe by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Asia Strategic Foresight Group, in particular regarding the significance of any parallels with dominant states in other regions.

The following are my reflections on the discussions between the delegation, including myself, and the thought leaders and decision-makers we met in Brussels and Berlin in October, to discuss latest geopolitical issues and ways forward for Europe-Asia collaboration.

As expected, the war in Ukraine and the rising US-China tensions dominated our dialogue. In Brussels, what surprised me was the apparently unquestioning acceptance of the narrative that the Russian invasion of Ukraine should serve as a forewarning of what the Chinese would do to Taiwan. The fact that some of our interlocutors in Brussels asked why Asians did not strongly condemn Russia and what they would do in the case of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan reflected an unfortunate lack of understanding of the strategic sentiments and situation in Asia. Because Taiwan is seen as part of China (under the One China principle) – and hence not a sovereign nation-state like Ukraine – meant the parallel cannot be drawn. The framing of the war in Ukraine as one of democracies against autocracies, possibly as a way to draw this connection between the perceived threats from Russia and China, is rejected by most Asians. It seems to be lost on many in Brussels that China is a geographical and economic reality for Asians and we need to learn how to live with China and manage our relations with China rather than see it as a threat. Many in Asia do not necessarily want to frame China as a threat but as a neighbour that we have to learn to live with. In fact, the greatest threat to many of the Asian countries is the US-Sino rivalry with all its terrible consequences, rather than China itself.

In Berlin, there was much more nuance in our dialogue with the different interlocutors.  There is a broader spectrum of views that is refreshing.  What is important is the recognition that the present policy-making environment in Europe is not ideal, as much of the thinking around and responses to what is happening in Ukraine has become driven by events- and emotion.  There is a need to go back to more long-term strategic thinking and rational policy making.

From the engagement with interlocutors in Brussels and Berlin, my concern is the disconnect between the two. Brussels appeared to be more sucked into a binary mindset, as reflected in their questions to the Asian experts on why not everyone in Asia is on board with the West’s position against Russia. Berlin, as the most recent visit to China by Chancellor Olaf Scholz showed, would need to work within the EU to convince the other Europeans of the need to be less ideological and more strategic and pragmatic in their approach to relations with Asian partners. 

During the discussion, another interesting issue I thought deserved to be more fully explored. Both Asia and Europe seemed to agree on the need for a rules-based order; but then comes the question of what rules and who sets them, and what “order” are we talking about: Is it the Westphalian order, which most Asians subscribe to, with an emphasis on territorial integrity, sovereign equality and non-interference in domestic affairs? Or the liberal order that was constructed in the post-Cold war era with the dominance of the West, framed around the promotion of democracy and human rights, and the right to humanitarian intervention and responsibility to protect?

Moving forward, the discussions with some of the German interlocutors on how to engender an inclusive framework to write the new rules of engagement that is fit for purpose for the 21st century is really important and need to be followed up.  We need to jointly create a space for countries to collaborate and cooperate and not be held hostage by the US-China rivalry.

Dr Yeo Lay Hwee is the Director of the European Union Centre in Singapore and Council Secretary at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. She is also a member of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Asia Strategic Foresight Group, an interdisciplinary network of thought leaders from 20 countries in Asia and Europe.

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

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