Each of Asia’s three largest powers has a stake in the outcome of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.
China sees the crisis as another opportunity to accelerate a changing global order; Japan wants to contain these Chinese aims; and India is eager not to alienate Russia or the West, according to analysts at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think-tank.
At first glance, the escalating crisis that has followed Russia’s recognition of separatist-controlled regions in eastern Ukraine might seem to be a fundamentally European and transatlantic problem.
“But, as demonstrated by the emergency meeting the United Nations Security Council held immediately after the event, the resulting threat to peace and stability — as well as to the international order and the global economy, particularly supply chains — has already led to policy shifts far beyond the transatlantic community,” commented ECFR analysts Frederic Grare, Janka Oertel and Elli-Katharina Pohlkamp.
Japan, China and India all have special historical relationships with Russia that constrain their reactions to the Ukraine conflict.
Dependence on imports of Russian oil and natural gas, and a desire to continue bilateral dialogue over islands appropriated by the Soviet Union in 1945 have made successive Japanese governments reluctant to impose hard sanctions or limit diplomatic relations with Russia.
The new administration led by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida seems to have abandoned this conciliatory approach, both in language and in action.
“It will implement several sets of economic sanctions on Russia and the two pro-Russian separatist regions in eastern Ukraine,” noted the ECFR analysts.
Tokyo is said to be concerned that, if democratic countries fail to take a tough line on Russia, this will encourage China to exert more control over its neighbours.
Accordingly, Japan now appears more willing to align with the US and G7 approach than it was after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, the ECFR report said.
Meanwhile, as Russia-Ukraine tensions escalated, India entered an era of turbulence.
“Since the end of cold war, New Delhi’s proximity to Moscow has been determined by India’s high dependence on the Russian defence industry, by its energy needs, and even more so by a fear that Russia — driven by its antagonism with the US — will fall within the Chinese sphere of influence,” the analysts noted.
They suggested that the Ukraine crisis could disrupt the fragile equilibrium that India has preserved in its relations with Russia on one side and Western powers on the other.
“India’s representative on the UN Security Council has cautiously emphasised the need to focus on diplomacy. However, India’s position does not reflect sympathy with Russia’s behaviour but a lack of better options,” said the analysts, adding that “New Delhi would have a great deal to lose by alienating Moscow”.
In contrast, China is said to be “tacitly supporting Russian actions in Ukraine”.
Beijing has “already spoken out publicly against Western-led sanctions on Russia and, so far, has failed to even implicitly condemn Russian aggression”, the report noted.
“This comes as no surprise: only two weeks ago, President Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping met on the sidelines of the 2022 Beijing Olympics. The ink is barely dry on their joint statement supporting each other’s ambitions and celebrating their bilateral relationship as the embodiment of ‘a comprehensive strategic partnership for a new era’.”
Xi might not have openly supported Putin’s position on “Nato expansionism” at the time, but their joint statement is claimed to have done just that.
“This suggests that China’s overriding political preference is for changes in the global order that accommodate the interests of the Chinese Communist Party — and that this aim is currently best served by a closer alignment between Moscow and Beijing, which is more important than short-term economic considerations,” the analysts said.
They believe the escalation in Ukraine is unlikely to create a rift in Russia-China relations.
“On the contrary, depending on how the crisis develops and the rest of the world responds, it may forge an even closer partnership between Beijing and Moscow in the short term, as the West’s focus on the European theatre creates space for China to expand its sphere of influence in Asia,” said Grare, Oertel and Pohlkamp.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying pulled no punches when addressing the media on Wednesday, slamming into the Biden administration.
“On the Ukraine issue, lately the US has been sending weapons to Ukraine, heightening tensions, creating panic and even hyping up the possibility of warfare,” she said.
“A key question here is what role the US, the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played. If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and immoral.”