Author: Susan Thornton, Yale University
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has produced disaster on many fronts, most immediately for the people of Ukraine. The conflict has jolted Europe from a reverie of extended relative peace between major powers. Russia’s blatant violation of international law and Western sanctions in response are accelerating the reversal of globalisation that began under former US president Donald Trump and continued during COVID-19.
But compared to Western countries, the attitude towards Russia’s invasion and accompanying deglobalisation effects are viewed with more ambivalence many in Asia. Governments in the Asia Pacific remain wedded to their vision of regional integration and modernisation. Though many voted in the United Nations to condemn Russia’s territorial aggression, only a handful agreed to impose their own sanctions, while several have openly opposed the sanctions regime.
Asian states are generally loath to alienate a major power, especially one that is a major commodity exporter. Countries that depend on Russia for minerals, energy, food or weapons worry about the effects of shortages and price increases on their domestic economic trajectories. On his visit to Washington in late March 2022, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lamented that ‘the war would bring about a significant reversal of the global multilateral order and economically damage countries relying on globalisation to sustain their economies’.
Asian ambivalence also extends to vocal efforts to exclude Russia from international gatherings. In 2022, four big multilateral summits that traditionally include Russia will be held in East Asia — BRICS, the East Asia Summit, the G20 and APEC. China is hosting the BRICS summit virtually at the end of June. Russian President Vladimir Putin will almost certainly appear, as the other members — Brazil, India, China and South Africa — have refrained from condemning Russia’s invasion.
The other three Asian summits will be held in November, with Cambodia hosting the East Asia Summit on 11–13 November. While ASEAN is unlikely to disinvite Russia, if the United States boycotts the summit, it will leave the field to China. The topic came up at the US–ASEAN summit on 13 May in Washington but ASEAN’s mantra is ‘inclusivity’ and Russia has been an important partner.
Struggles over Russian participation are already upending the G20, scheduled for 15–16 November in Indonesia. US and other finance ministers walked out on Russian presenters at a G20 finance ministers’ session in April and the United States has called for Russia to be excluded from the coming summit. But the G20 is a consensus-based organisation and many G20 members, including China, reject Russia’s exclusion.
Thailand is hosting APEC right after the G20. Beyond the Russian invitation, it will also have to grapple with the reality that APEC’s signature goal of regional economic integration has gone into reverse amid creeping protectionism, cascading sanctions regimes and popular demonstrations of political solidarity such as boycotts. Meeting for the first time since 2018, the economic dislocations from both Russia’s war and US–China frictions are likely to overwhelm APEC’s market-opening agenda.
China, for its part, will seize the opportunities left by a US diplomatic leadership vacuum in Asia. The Biden administration has tried to assert a regional agenda through regular meetings of the Quad (the United States, Japan, India and Australia) and has tried to make up for the neglect of Southeast Asia by hosting ASEAN leaders in Washington. But China has pushed forward with the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement and continues to tout regional integration and connectivity projects with local appeal. The US economic agenda in the region has so far been absent.
In the wake of the extraordinary sanctions against Russia, China is steeling itself to face new rounds of US sanctions over human rights, technology and security issues. Beijing will take advantage of the conflict to work harder on de-dollarisation and woo regional and Global South partners. The prospect of Russia-like sanctions will not change China’s calculus on its strategic goals and interests but it will work harder on efforts to insulate itself from such measures.
Governments in East Asia, who were already caught uncomfortably in the rapidly escalating US–China tensions, now face further concerns. As Western allies turn inward towards G7, NATO and Quad structures, the majority of countries outside of the G7 with their own interests will not stand on the sidelines awaiting instruction. They are likely to proceed with their inclusive ‘big tent’ approach, which maximises their diplomatic options and room for manoeuvre, particularly in this time of uncertainty.
Whether the West responds by actively participating and outlining a positive vision for the future of global governance and cooperation will determine whether ‘we all hang together, or hang separately’.
Susan Thornton is a Senior Fellow and Visiting Lecturer at the Paul Tsai China Center, Yale Law School, Director of the Forum on Asia-Pacific Security at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. She was previously a senior diplomat at the US State Department.
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