The Ukraine War: Perspectives and Reactions in Asia

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This article provides an overview of how Russia's war of aggression on Ukraine is being viewed and assessed in various regions and countries in Asia, and how the governments there are positioning themselves and reacting: in the Southeast Asian ASEAN countries, in Northeast Asia, and in India, China, and Myanmar.

Teaser Image Caption
Protests in Tokyo against Russia's Ukraine war.

Reactions in Southeast Asia

The spectrum of Southeast Asian states' reactions to the Russian invasion of Ukraine ranges from explicit condemnation to consistent abstention. In geopolitical terms, the relationship with China also plays an important role here.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) produced a very weak reaction to the Ukraine War.  The ASEAN Foreign Ministers' statement used neither the words "Russia" nor "invasion", but called for peaceful dialogue and negotiations. This is in line with the association's principle of not interfering in other countries' affairs and balancing between larger states. At the same time, Russia is a major trading partner and - according to data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute - Southeast Asia's most important arms supplier. At the same time, Ukraine exports important raw materials to the region. Thus, Russia's invasion of Ukraine may affect the region's economic post-COVID recovery, as the conflict causes price spikes for energy and commodities such as oil, nickel, wheat, and corn.

However, there is disagreement within Southeast Asia, and reactions vary widely. Nine of the eleven countries voted in favor of the first UN resolution, with Laos and Vietnam abstaining. Most Southeast Asian countries abstained on the resolution to exclude Russia from the Human Rights Council, with only the Philippines and Timor Leste voting in favor of it.

Singapore's response to the sanctions and its explicit condemnation of Russia's actions constituted the strongest reaction from the region, reflecting the small state's priority and commitment to the international order. At the same time, Singapore also has the highest per capita military spending and the best-equipped military in Southeast Asia. Public pronouncements in other countries, including key states such as Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia, have been much more cautious.

The efforts of Thailand's authorities to remain neutral are vividly illustrated by the tacit removal of the head of the army-owned television channel “Channel 5” which had been representing strongly pro-Russian positions and disseminated misinformation in its programs until late March, when one of its broadcasts was suddenly interrupted and the army publicly apologized for "technical problems." Similar to Myanmar, many members of the old elite in Thailand stand behind Russia's war of aggression, while younger pro-democracy activists strongly criticize Russian policies.

The case of Vietnam illustrates the geopolitical dilemma in which many Southeast Asian states currently find themselves. After all, Vietnam had already been caught between the fronts of the U.S.-China-Russia geopolitical triangle during the Cold War. Russia is not only Vietnam's most important arms supplier, but also a central strategic partner for the exploration of oil and gas deposits in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, in its Indo-Pacific Strategy, the Biden administration in Washington enshrines Vietnam as a priority security partner and increasingly invests in economic and military ties, despite ideological differences. Both the United States and Russia are central to Vietnam's ability to deal with the growing threat to its security from Beijing. Since the Ukraine War began, there has been growing fear in Vietnam that China's approach to the conflict in the South China Sea, among other things, could focus even more on so-called "gray zone" tactics (just below the threshold of war).

Reactions in Northeast Asia

The Northeast Asian democracies of Japan and South Korea condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine in late February at the March 2, 2022, special session of the United Nations General Assembly. This was fundamentally a values-driven decision. Both states see themselves as part of the global alliance of democratic forces. This is reflected not the least on the German side by the fact that Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Japan (and not, say, the People's Republic of China) for his first visit to Asia on April 29, 2022.

At the same time, however, the regional political situation strongly influences perceptions of the war by political elites and people in both countries. On the one hand, there is fear of North Korea as an aggressive and inscrutable neighbor, working on its nuclear armament and repeatedly carrying out ballistic missile tests. On the other hand, at least Japan has territorial conflicts with the two major powers in the region, China and Russia, that carry a risk of escalation in a crisis situation. The attack on Ukraine actualizes such threat perceptions. Heinrich Böll Foundation partner Akira Kawasaki of "Peace Boat" [see separate interview] says that parts of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the most important party in the current governing coalition, uses this situation to expand the scope of armament policy: They want to increase the military budget in line with NATO standards, while the definition of what kind of armament is permitted by Japan's "pacifist" constitution should be expanded, without amending the constitution itself. Such proposals remain controversial in Japanese society.

For both countries, China is by far the most important partner in trade and investment, but there are also intensive economic ties with Russia. The Japanese government has joined Western sanctions against Russia; one exception, as in Europe, is energy imports, even though Japan does not have a comparable level of dependence on Russia as, say, Germany. South Korea initially sought to avoid jeopardizing its economic interests in trade with Russia through sanctions. But since February the United States has exerted considerable political pressure on the government to join in comprehensive trade sanctions against Russia.

Civil society networks such as Peace Boat in Japan and People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy in South Korea are often critical of their government policies. They are mobilizing contacts with governments, think tanks, and NGOs in all states in the region to help de-escalate tensions in Northeast Asia and explore options for negotiation.

In Taiwan, the war on Ukraine has increased worries of an invasion of the island by the Chinese People's Liberation Army. As the course of the war in Ukraine so far seems to showcase the strengths of a motivated, technology-based defense strategy against a superior aggressor, this is leading Taiwan to reexamine its own defence concepts. Taiwan's strategic position in global semiconductor production does not appear to be threatened in the short term by sanctions and supply chain disruptions. However, because of fundamental uncertainty about the island's future, geographic diversification of the sector did already begun before the war, with the construction of "fabs" (large-scale integrated circuit manufacturing facilities) in the U.S., Japan and Europe.

India's Response and Its "Multi-Alignment" Diplomacy

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, a strict sanctions regime is unfolding against Russia, pushed by leading governments of the EU, the United States and their coalition partners. These countries are far from happy with New Delhi's neutral positioning. Their message is clear: India should take a tougher stance toward Russia. In recent weeks, numerous diplomats have visited India in quick succession, including from the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands. The "West" is calling on India to take a more "principled" stand on Russia and shift its position at the UN and other multilateral forums, to not buy oil from Russia and even refrain from a rupee-ruble-based trade deal with it that may circumvent the sanctions or bolster the Russian economy.

The United States and Europe have also signaled their support for India to diversify its procurement of weapons and military equipment so that India no longer relies on weapons systems from Russia. In doing so, the U.S. and Europe have abandoned their earlier reluctance to transfer advanced military equipment to India.

Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar has said that India's position on the situation in Ukraine is based on "an immediate cessation of violence and cessation of hostilities," "a return to the path of dialogue and diplomacy, and a global order based on international law, the UN Charter, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all states." Jaishankar said India's foreign policy decisions on such matters would be taken in accordance with national interests and guided by his country's thinking, views and interests. India has successively abstained from voting in UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions condemning Moscow's actions. On the other hand, India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken with both President Putin and Zelenskyi about what India “could do to encourage a cessation of hostilities” and dialogue as a path to resolve and de-escalate tensions. Tranches of humanitarian aid and medical supplies have been sent to Ukraine on its request.

Despite Western pressure and India's fundamental and growing proximity to the West, India's response to the Ukraine War is unlikely to change. This is because there are complex and compelling geopolitical reasons as well as national interests at play. The emphasis on "dialogue and diplomacy" is indicative of how India views the war: From India's perspective, it is a geopolitical conflict between Russia and NATO with roots in the post-Cold War security order. India has a history of non-alignment, a foreign policy imperative that refuses to be entangled in great power politics. Although this policy has evolved since then, "strategic autonomy" remains an important focus of India's foreign policy.

At home, the Indian government has received praise for its position even from the political opposition, which is rare. India-Russia friendship dates back to the 1950s, and while relations have not been the same for several decades, the diplomatic "friendship" is considered time-tested: Russia has stood by India when other countries have not. For example, Russia has used its veto power at the UN several times to defend India's interests, including on the Kashmir issue. Russia (or rather, the Soviet Union at the time) stood firmly with India during the Cold War when the U.S. allied with Pakistan. The Indian government's current attitude toward Russia also resonates with a large majority of the Indian population. The Indian public has always shown a high degree of goodwill toward Russia.

Beyond diplomatic relations and public opinion, Russia also remains an important supplier of weapons, raw materials, and imports needed for India's energy security.

No less than 60 percent of India's military equipment is sourced from Russia, providing it with defense capacity against two nuclear-armed neighbors, Pakistan and China. Despite the threat of U.S. sanctions, India has pushed ahead with the import of the Russian S-400 missile system, which is critical to its military deterrence strategy. Although India has attempted to diversify its arms purchases over the past decade and is now increasingly sourcing defense equipment from the UK, France, Israel and the US, procurement from Russia remains cost-effective and continues to account for the lion's share.

Moreover, there is a path dependency due to past arms imports from Russia, including for spare parts and handling, which makes it unprofitable for India to move away from Russian supply dependency in the short term. This is especially true in the current situation where India faces major security threats in the region.

Nuclear energy is another area where cooperation with Russia is critical, as Russia is the only country that has successfully entered the nuclear power generation sector in India.

However, other geopolitical developments such as the intensification of relations between Russia and China in recent years are also of concern to India – be it the "Greater Eurasian Partnership" aimed at preventing Western penetration into the region, or a "No Limits Friendship" between the two powers. No less worrisome from an Indian perspective is Russia's growing bilateral engagement with Pakistan, which also maintains strong ties with China.

To some extent, India hedges against its security challenges by, on the one hand, engaging in Russian- and Chinese-led institutions such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Russia-India-China (RIC) Forum, and the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), while at the same time being a member of the Indo-Pacific "quatrilateral security dialogue" (QUAD), consisting of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan. This is consistent with India's efforts to achieve a multipolar Asia, as well as India's national interests, which are brought to the fore by this "multi-alignment" foreign policy approach.

Large segments of Indian civil society and public opinion fundamentally oppose the war and therefore support the Indian government's position on an immediate cessation of violence in Ukraine. From the left to the right of the political spectrum, there seems to be unanimity on this. However, many Indians also harbor a deep-rooted distrust of the West because of its long history of colonization. Many are cynical about the West's defense of "democracy and freedom," which has too often served as a cover for the expansion of geopolitical spheres of influence through proxy wars and "regime change." In public memory, Russian solidarity through assistance during the peak of the COVID 19 pandemic in 2021 contrasts sharply with the West's refusal to waive intellectual property rights to COVID 19 vaccines. Such a suspension (waiver) has been requested by India and South Africa at the WTO in order to achieve greater vaccine equity for the Global South.

Very few Indian commentaries and editorials have called the war in Ukraine an "invasion." Some have raised the broader question of whether a country that aspires to global leadership can afford "neutrality" at all, and whether India should not choose much more to play an active role in shaping world politics. The question has also been raised as to what price India's "neutrality" toward Russia would entail for India's moral standing and credibility.

At this juncture, however, it seems important for India to maintain its "strategic autonomy" to defend its core interests by opting for pragmatism rather than "moral absolutism”.  Regional security concerns and the impact of the Ukraine crisis on Asia also compel India to protect its core security and development interests. A foreign policy orientation of “multi-alignment” and a related strong diplomatic engagement to maintain good relations with both the West and Russia remain the cornerstones of India's foreign policy aspirations.

Beijing's Reactions: "Viral Front" at Home Ties Up Attention

Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24, the People's Republic of China has been talking, even more reproachfully than before, about what it perceives to be the real aggressor: the United States of America. From an official point of view, but also from a Chinese elite perspective, Russia did not start a war of aggression. Instead, using Russian military vernacular, Chinese state media is pushing the narrative of a "defensive offensive" against what Russia calls "NATO's eastward expansion." The Singaporean news portal Initium Media compiled a list of the linguistic contortions the Chinese government resorted to in the first days of the Russian invasion.

While Chinese state media have begun using expressions such as "armed conflict," terms such as "invasion" and "annexation" remain taboo. However, official think tanks and microblogs of influential commentators have free rein to come up with their very own geopolitical prognosis: the next major target of so-called U.S.-financed aggression and sanctions will be China itself. Support for Vladimir Putin, who is not only on social media glorified by a large number of sympathizers as a strong man, is correspondingly high. Putin also receives support from nationalist intellectuals and academics, so-called zuogun, vocal "leftist beating sticks", who adopt Moscow's denazification propaganda, sometimes verbatim. In view of the public intellectual vacuum in the People's Republic, these statements remain largely unchallenged in the media. In private, however, many people, especially the young urban elite, sympathize with the Ukrainian cause.  Two things are striking: publicly, important actors, such as the Party University in Beijing, are surprisingly silent. And even the party-affiliated think tanks of China's elite universities do not speak of a genuine strategic partnership between China and Russia.

Rare Opposition to War

In a country the size of China, some voices can be found speaking out against the invasion of Ukraine, for example in an open letter by prominent academics. However, in China's tightly controlled media system, these voices usually fall victim to censorship after just a few hours. The most outspoken statement against the war so far comes from a senior Shanghai government adviser who warned on March 5 against siding too much with Russia and stressed China's constructive role: "Putin’s departure from China’s support will most likely end the war, or at least not dare to escalate the war," said Prof. Hu Wei, vice chairman of an advisory body that reports directly to China's State Council (国务院参事室 , guowuyuan canshishi). " "As a result, China will surely win widespread international praise for maintaining world peace, which may help China prevent isolation but also find an opportunity to improve its relations with the United States and the West," Hu added. The PRC's political system usually stipulates that such prominent pronouncements cannot take place without the approval of superiors. Thus, it is by no means certain that the "no-limits " friendship between Russia and China, as the Feb. 4 joint statement put it, is actually agreed to by all top officials at the party's power center. The article is officially blocked, but is still being discussed by Chinese netizens.

Bartering instead of partnership

The Moscow-Beijing axis arises primarily from similar national interests. Vladimir Putin's visit to the Chinese capital before the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics possibly sealed a geopolitical barter: Chinese support for Russia in exchange for Russian support for China on U.S. President Biden's Indo-Pacific strategy, released in February, by which China feels its security interests are threatened.

Either way, the more relevant battle for China is currently at home: successful implementing the "zero covid" strategy, by whatever draconian measures, represents a far more important measure of political stability in the country between now and the 20th Party Congress in November than military combat operations in Europe. Fundamentally, for the vast majority of Chinese citizens the war is far away. It is seen above all as an expression of a showdown between the U.S. and its archrival from the Cold War era - with an imminent open confrontation with China as a logical consequence.

It appears that the Chinese leadership is willing to maintain the growing international isolation that accompanies its support for Russia as long as the viral struggle at home makes progress. But that front is currently proving almost as tenacious as Ukraine's resistance to Russia's onslaught.

Myanmar's Coup Plotters Take Sides with Russia

With Myanmar's military government, Russia has one of the few allies in the world. The democracy movement, on the other hand, condemns Russia's war of aggression, shows solidarity with Ukraine, and calls for more international support for its own cause as well. 

In Myanmar, Russia's Ukraine campaign and international reactions are being closely watched. Democracy activists see parallels between the Russian invasion and their own oppression and lack of self-determination rights in their own country. The Burmese military, which swept to power in February 2021, is engaged in numerous bloody conflicts with pro-democracy movements in the central country and ethnic armed organizations in the border regions. However, international reactions after the coup have been limited - key neighboring countries such as Thailand, China and India have not taken a position and have only mildly condemned the violence, while the U.S. and EU have put in place a number of sanctions packages targeting military personnel and military-related companies.

Since the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, there have been numerous expressions of solidarity from Myanmar civilians with Ukrainians. At the same time, there are calls for military support for pro-democracy forces, similar to what Ukraine is now receiving from the West. Countries such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea, which support sanctions against Russia and Belarus but have not adopted sanctions against Myanmar, are also coming under increasing criticism.

Historically, the Myanmar military has been close to both Russia and Ukraine. In recent years, both countries have supplied weapons to the Burmese armed forces, which regard Russia in particular as a strong partner. It is therefore hardly surprising that the Burmese generals support the Russian invasion and have said that Russia is only defending its sovereignty. In the UN General Assembly, however, the picture is different: Myanmar is represented there by U Kyaw Moe Tun, a pro-democrat who is accused of treason by the military but has not yet been replaced by the coup plotters at the UN level. U Kyaw Moe Tun, on behalf of Myanmar, echoed all condemnations against the Russian invasion at the General Assembly.

In particular, the further positioning of the U.S. and the EU on the Ukrainian war will be of great importance for the Myanmar conflict. Each new round of sanctions against Russia and each new arms delivery to Ukraine increase the expectations of the Myanmar democracy movement who ask why similar measures are not taken for Myanmar in order to bring the military junta to its knees.

 

We thank all colleagues in Berlin and hbs international offices who contributed to this article.


This article first appeared here: in.boell.org