Crimean Lessons: Implications for China and the Asia-Pacific Region, Part 1

Ernest Chong

As Western Europe and the United States scramble to craft effective responses to the Ukraine crisis, another collection of nations is anxiously watching the aftermath unfold from the other side of the globe. What does the Crimean situation mean for China and the Asia-Pacific? This two-part brief looks at the lessons and implications for the region.  

The American ‘pivot’ to Asia has been dealt an enormous distraction. The Crimean crisis has left the United States in a difficult position and has damaged its credibility as the Asia-Pacific’s historical security guarantor. Washington’s current tepid response has its Asia-Pacific allies wondering how much assistance they can expect from the White House if a similar incident happened in their backyard. Whether this crisis will permanently change American strategic positioning remains to be seen, but the Asia-Pacific will likely draw several conclusions from what has already happened.

The first lesson is probably the modern limitation of diplomacy in solving territorial disputes. Despite international condemnation, Russia still managed to annex the Crimean peninsula through intimidation and creeping assertiveness. This has undermined European assumptions that inter-dependency between nations would deter revisionist aspirations and that modern diplomacy would preclude the belligerent use of military force. The West’s current inability to offer any serious punitive measure seems to signal that – for the time being, at least – the notions that force trumps negotiation and might makes right have been revived.

A shake up of prevailing international relations paradigms does not bode well for the Asia-Pacific. Tensions in the region are already at an all-time high with Beijing’s growing geopolitical weight and aggressive regional policy. China has territorial disputes with no less than six nations in the East and South China Seas, to say nothing of the Taiwan question, and concern surrounds what China will do if it is emboldened by Russia’s example.

While none of the disputes have thus far been militarized, China has done virtually everything short of it. Beijing has refused to meaningfully negotiate multilaterally with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), instead preferring to talk with claimants bilaterally to better coerce its smaller neighbours. China has allowed its military leaders and state media to make hawkish statements to ratchet up tensions. It has also sent a continuous stream of domestic maritime enforcement vessels to patrol disputed areas to essentially alter the waters’ status quo at a creeping pace and announced an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea for the same purpose. The region is worried that a post-Crimea paradigm shift could see China assert itself even more aggressively than it already has.

A second lesson is the folly of relying on external balancing for territorial security. Ukraine relied heavily on the implicit (and largely political) guarantees of the Budapest Memorandum for its sovereignty and territorial integrity. When the inevitable Russian reclamation of its Black Sea foothold came, these external assurances have thus far come to nothing. To be sure, there are reasons why Ukraine did not militarize more robustly against its neighbour, but the heavy reliance on external rather than internal balancing was fundamentally flawed.

It would seem that the Asia-Pacific has not made the same mistake in balancing against China. Despite the United States’ ‘pivot’ to Asia, regional military spending is at an all-time high. Every nation entertains Washington’s assurances of continued American interest in the region while also equipping itself with weapons meant to deter Chinese designs on their respective territories.

This militarization must be put in perspective, however. Despite new equipment, most of the region’s militaries are not capable of winning a pitched battle against the numerically-superior People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Japan and South Korea would have to commit considerable military assets in a shooting war, and even then the outcome is uncertain. For smaller ASEAN countries like the Philippines, there is virtually no hope of holding off a Chinese assault.

Instead, the aim is to be equipped enough to make the costs of military action unacceptable for Beijing. Deterrence here is not based on the ability to resist an invasion, but to make Chinese materiel and associated costs so high that a successful incursion be too prohibitively expensive for China to attempt. The region-wide acquisitions of submarines, for example, are a direct counter to the PLA Navy’s growing inventory of surface warships. The corollary, of course, is that the threat of a more aggressive China could cause this militarization to accelerate into an even larger arms race.

A third lesson is that restoring or enhancing the national reputation continues to be valued domestic political currency. National leaders remain beholden to their domestic constituency for their basis of power. Putin does not fear the international community as much as he fears the waning of popular support at home. As such, his primary concern is satisfying his domestic audience, even at the expense of flouting international law. Indeed, if his reference to the collapse of the Soviet Union as a “geopolitical catastrophe” is any indication, Crimea marks a new step in Putin’s campaign to return Russia to its former glory.

This domestic prioritization is reflected in the Asia-Pacific. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) derives its legitimacy from its ability to deliver tangible benefits to the Chinese people. Putin’s Cold War lamentation is mirrored in China’s perception that the past century was a “century of humiliation”. China’s decade of meteoric economic growth is seen as the first step in restoring the country to its rightful place as a great power, complete with the territorial possessions of those past empires. Should the CCP be unable to rein in this growing vein of hypernationalism brewing in the population, it may have no choice but to act aggressively outwards to appease domestic fervor.

Nationalist tendencies have also become increasingly popular in China’s neighbours. Japan, for example, has an equally potent streak of hypernationalism that runs right up to its current ruling political party and prime minister. Belligerent Chinese media and Beijing’s own vitriol have caused a nationalist backlash in the Philippines, while domestically-oriented socio-cultural divisions in Indonesia and Singapore have become serious issues in recent years. Much like the CCP, other Asia-Pacific leaders may find themselves hostage to the nationalist tendencies of their constituents, including the irrational or counterproductive policies needed to placate them.

Finally, the Crimean situation highlights the subjective nature of perceived value. Russia – or perhaps Putin – put more value in reclaiming the Crimea than the West assumed. When combined with an opportunity to thumb its nose at the United States and the EU, Russia was willing to expend significant resources and face international condemnation to achieve those objectives. The West’s assumed thresholds were crossed with impunity because they were not commensurate with Russia’s subjective perception of the reward. Rightly or wrongly, Russia saw a low-risk opportunity and seized it. Given current European indecision and American inaction, Moscow is getting a fantastic return on investment.

The question then is what holds value in Asia, and at what price? It is unclear what values each nation ultimately attaches to each issue. In the South and East China Seas, the nationalist tint has skewed the level of rhetoric, leaving observers unsure how much diplomatic belligerence is sabre-rattling bravado and how much is a genuine reflection of a nation’s vested interest in a particular patch of water. The Sino-Japanese dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, for example, has as much to do with deep-rooted historical resentment as it does a stubborn argument about the ownership of a collection of uninhabited islands.

China’s inability to negotiate multilaterally – or agree to virtually any level of compromise – with any claimant further makes any clear situational read difficult. The reclamation of Taiwan, for example, has been clearly designated a Chinese national strategic imperative. But Beijing has also indicated that its “nine-dash line” of claims in the South China Sea is a core national interest. Whether China truly values the tenuous claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea as equal to the Taiwan issue remains to be seen – just as it remains to be seen how much Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines will stand for blatant Chinese encroachment of their shorelines. The fact that several nations have sizable ethnic Chinese populations (despite none of them having significant ties to China) has also not been lost on their respective governments.

Given these conclusions, where does this leave the Asia-Pacific?

Ernest Chong graduated from the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He is currently an analyst with the Government of Canada.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Government of Canada.


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