The most significant international crisis in recent years—Russia’s invasion of the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine—has left global and western institutions scrambling to respond. What lessons do these events offer thus far for Asia?
First, at a time when a focus of the U.S. strategy toward Asia has emphasized strengthening regional institutions to deal with differences—establishing strong “rules of the road”—the crisis in Ukraine shows the capabilities as well as limits of such rules. In the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Europe has strong economic and security institutions, with decades of experience working together, managing differences, facilitating shared security burdens, and coordinating the continent’s trade approaches to the world.
In many ways the system worked; there has been no Russian move into alliance members like Latvia or Lithuania, which also have Russian-speaking minorities. Ukraine, at the EU frontier and outside of NATO, is much more vulnerable by comparison.
But the crisis also reveals the limits of rules and norms. Moscow seemed unconcerned that NATO members might view an invasion of neighboring Ukraine as a direct threat. Nor did fear of possible alienation from the G8, or condemnation from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), dissuade Russia from an invasion in the name of protecting Russian speakers. The other side of the rules of the road argument would be their limited power.
So as the United States focuses in its Asia policy on shoring up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum, East Asia Summit, and ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting Plus—all of which now include ASEAN, the United States, India, China, Japan, Russia, and others—the argument that establishing shared rules will enhance regional security has frayed a little at the edges.
Second, the Ukraine events illustrate the woeful failings of the UN Security Council (UNSC). Its vulnerability to veto power renders the UNSC in an awkwardly limited position. This is why Europe and the United States are examining persuasive and punitive responses centered elsewhere: on a “contact group,” national visa policies, economic fora like the G8, and possibilities of coordinated sanctions.
The UNSC’s vulnerabilities matter in Asia because of the possibility of conflict in several places, compounded by the more limited institutional mechanisms available for dealing with one, should it erupt. The Council on Foreign Relations’ Center for Preventive Action released its 2014 Global Conflict Tracker in January, and the places which global experts feared might be flashpoints in 2014 are instructive.
Across South Asia, post-2014 stability in Afghanistan, instability in Pakistan, Indo-Pakistan conflict, and Sino-Indian border conflict all made the list. Of these, Sino-Indian border conflict was ranked below the others in terms of likelihood. Yet that is also the one potential conflict where a permanent member of the UNSC (China) moved troops to the border with India last May, and about thirty Chinese soldiers pitched tents nineteen kilometers inside Indian territory. That episode lasted for more than three weeks before India and China defused the situation.
In addition, in recent years China has become increasingly more assertive in its claim to the Tawang area of the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which lies just below the “line of actual control” between the two countries in place since the two countries’ 1962 border war.
Chinese authorities have refused to issue Indian citizens from that state visas in their Indian passports, offering only “stapled visas” instead, and have issued maps that depict the territory as part of China. In India, people view these Chinese claims with an increasingly wary eye; last May’s tent-pitching was just the most expansive demonstration of territorial claim in recent years. Last week one of India’s leading politicians, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, gave a speech in India’s northeast in which he called for China to end its “expansionist mindset.”
But back to Ukraine: the Indian government has not taken a strong public position on the crisis, walking a tightrope between its deep historic ties to Russia, and its commitment to the inviolability of national sovereignty. The only indication of India’s position so far, despite a reported request from the government of Ukraine for India to support it against Russia’s claims, has been a response to a question on Twitter from the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson: “We are closely watching fast evolving situation and hope for a peaceful resolution.”
How this crisis unfurls in the coming days will matter greatly for Asia. If the combination of NATO, EU, OSCE, G7, and coordinated national responses effectively manage the crisis, then the lesson will be that violating international norms result in costs too steep to bear. But a prolonged period of indeterminate impact, with Russian troops digging in further in Crimea against all appeals otherwise, may lead to the conclusion that the most institutionalized region of the world has few arrows in the policy quiver to respond to territorial aggression—the worst possible lesson.
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