The tremors of the United States’ tensions with Russia playing out in Europe are being felt in different ways already in Asia. The hypothesis that Ukraine is a part of Europe and the conflict is all about European security is delusional.
From Kazakhstan to Myanmar, from the Solomon Islands to the Kuril Islands, from North Korea to Cambodia, from China to India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the fault lines are appearing in different parts of Asia.
To be sure, extra-regional powers had a hand in the failed color revolution recently to overthrow the established government in Kazakhstan, a hotly contested geopolitical landmass bordering China and Russia, both of whom are Washington’s sworn adversaries. Thanks to swift Russian intervention, supported by China, a regime change was averted in Kazakhstan.
Equally, the Anglo-American project to embroil Myanmar, bordering China, in an armed insurgency has floundered for want of a sanctuary in India’s northeastern region and due to the perceived congruence of interests among the surrounding countries in Myanmar’s stability.
In comparison, the North Korean fault line has aggravated. North Korea moves on its own timetable and has probably decided that the Ukraine crisis offers useful cover while it ramps up its weapons testing program. Pyongyang explicitly supports Russia’s special operation in Ukraine, with a researcher at a North Korean state-run institute on international politics, Ri Ji Song, stating that “the basic cause of the Ukraine incident lies in the high-handedness and arbitrariness of the United States, which has ignored Russia’s legitimate calls for security guarantees and only sought a global hegemony and military dominance while clinging to its sanctions campaigns.”
North Korea’s objective is to enhance its security and leverage by increasing the quality and quantity of its deterrent capabilities and strengthening its bargaining position.
Meanwhile, the Ukraine crisis has injected a new urgency into the U.S. efforts to cultivate new Asian partners. But Washington has run into headwinds and had to indefinitely postpone a special summit with the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that was initially scheduled for the end of March. No new date has been proposed, although the United States had hyped up the summit as a top priority.
Showing some ire, Washington issued sanctions against Cambodia, which is currently the ASEAN chair. Clearly, the Southeast Asian countries are chary of taking sides between the United States and China or of voicing their criticism against Russia.
Perhaps, the most direct fallout of the Ukraine crisis in Asia so far is the sharp deterioration in Japan’s ties with Russia. It is an unwarranted development insofar as Tokyo simply did a cut and paste job, copying all the U.S. sanctions against Russia (including against the country’s President Vladimir Putin). Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida wantonly destroyed what his predecessor Shinzo Abe had carefully cultivated: a cordial and friendly relationship with Russia.
Japan now openly refers to the Russian “occupation” of the Kuril Islands—something it hasn’t been doing in the past. Moscow retaliated by designating Japan as an “unfriendly” country. Yet, analysts were estimating until recently that Russia and Japan had congruent interests in blocking China’s Arctic ambitions and were, therefore, moving toward solving their dispute over the Kuril Islands.
Suffice to say, Kishida’s motivations—in an abrupt turnaround—to make the Kuril Islands a potential flashpoint in the Japanese relations with Russia can be, to say the least, traced back to the broader U.S. strategy to isolate Russia.
Meanwhile, a contrarian development has also appeared in China’s challenge to the U.S.’ Island Chain strategy in the Western Pacific by negotiating a new security deal with the Solomon Islands. This game-changing development may have extensive consequences and is dangerously interwoven with the Taiwan issue. Biden is reportedly dispatching a top White House official to the Solomon Islands to scuttle the deal with China.
The Biden administration is now doubling down on India to roll back its ties with Russia as well. That becomes a fault line in the U.S.-Indian strategic partnership. What must be particularly galling for Washington is the likelihood of India pursuing its trade and economic cooperation with Russia in local currencies. Indeed, China and India have also taken a somewhat similar stance on the Ukraine crisis.
Given the size of the Chinese economy and the high potential for growth of the Indian economy, the inclination of both these countries to bypass the dollar would be a trendsetter for other countries. “Russia, hit by Western sanctions, has called on the BRICS group of emerging economies to extend the use of national currencies and integrate payment systems,” said the Russian Finance Ministry.
Suffice to say, the “weaponized dollar” and the West’s abrasive move to freeze Russia’s reserves sends a chill down the spine of most developing countries. Nepal caved in to ratify the Millennium Challenge Corporation agreement following a threat by a middle-ranking U.S. official.
There is no conceivable reason why NATO should become the provider of security for the Asian region. That is why Afghanistan’s future is of crucial importance. Without a doubt, the regime change in Pakistan is partly at least related to Afghanistan. The Russian Foreign Ministry has disclosed certain details of the U.S. interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs and its pressure on former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan.
But time will show how realistic Washington’s expectations are of inducting Pakistan into the U.S. orbit and making it a surrogate to leverage the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Russia and China are making sure that the door remains closed to NATO’s return to Afghanistan. They have undercut Washington’s recent efforts to co-opt the Taliban leadership in Kabul.
The message out of a recent third Foreign Ministers’ Meeting on the Afghan Issue Among the Neighboring Countries of Afghanistan in Tunxi, China, which took place on March 31, is that in Afghanistan’s transition from chaos to order, the regional states hope to undertake a lead role. Thus, the regional states have incrementally marked their distance from the West’s exceptionalism and are instead adopting a persuasive track through constructive engagement. The joint statement issued at Tunxi reflects this new thinking.
The developments over Afghanistan provide a signpost that any attempt at imposing Western dominance over Asia will be resisted by the regional states. Most Asian countries have had bitter experiences with colonialism in their history.
Although the American analysts underplay it, the fact remains that the conflict in Ukraine is bound to impact the “Asian Century” very significantly. The United States is determined to transform NATO into a global security organization that will act beyond the purview of the United Nations to enforce the West’s “rules-based order.”
The West’s desperate push to weaken Russia and tilt the global strategic balance in the U.S.’ favor aims to clear the pathway leading to a unipolar world order in the 21st century. In a recent interview with Scott Simon for NPR, Hal Brands, Henry A. Kissinger distinguished professor of global affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, put across the U.S. strategy behind the war in Ukraine as very logical:
“Well, there’s long been a debate in the United States over whether we should prioritize competing with Russia or China or treat them as co-equals. And that debate has flared up again in the context of this war. I think what the war indicates, though, is that the best way of putting pressure on China, which is the more dangerous and the more powerful of the two rivals, is actually to ensure that Russia is defeated, that it does not achieve its objectives in this war, because that will result in a weaker Russia, one that is less capable of putting pressure on the United States and its allies in Europe and thus less useful as a strategic partner for Beijing.”
“The United States simply can’t avoid the reality that it has to contain both Russia and China simultaneously.”
M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.