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C Raja Mohan writes: With China’s expanding influence, Asia is also seeking to diversify its security partnerships

C Raja Mohan writes: This has led to greater Asian engagement with Europe as well as creation of new Indo-Pacific regional institutions – including Quad and AUKUS

US President Joe Biden holds a news conference before departing the NATO summit at the IFEMA arena in Madrid, Spain, June 30, 2022. (Reuters)

One of the many interesting features of last week’s summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in Madrid was the significant Indo-Pacific presence. For the first time, the prime ministers of Australia, Japan, and New Zealand as well as the president of South Korea participated in a NATO summit.

Russia and China, who had unveiled a partnership “without limits” and with “no-forbidden areas” just weeks before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, are now facing the whirlwind that has resulted from their muscular regional policies. The conflict between Russian and Chinese expansionism on the one hand and the revitalisation of old alliances like NATO and the construction of new Asian coalitions like the Quad and AUKUS on the other is here to stay.

In unveiling a new strategic conception for the alliance in the wake of the war in Ukraine, NATO has declared Russia “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area”. The new focus on Russia has not meant ignoring the China problem. NATO has declared that China’s “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.”

More than a decade ago — in 2010 — when NATO agreed on a strategic doctrine, it was discussing it with its Russian partners. There was no reference to China in the 2010 strategic concept. At that time, the West was trying to deepen ties with Russia and build expansive economic cooperation with China. Much has changed since, but history has accelerated since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

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Russia’s claims that Ukraine does not have the right to exist and that Moscow must have a veto over the policies of its western neighbours has shaken Europe out of its stupor. Barely two years ago, French President Emmanuel Macron was calling NATO “brain dead”. The then US President Donald Trump made no secret of his desire to put NATO out of business. However, the last few months have seen a closing of ranks in NATO that is now determined to cope with the Russian threat. Germany — which has long sought good political and commercial relations with Russia — has agreed to raise its defence spending and do more for European security. Sweden and Finland have ended their historic neutrality and decided to join NATO. The US is doubling down on its military commitments to Europe.

For India, it is natural to be neutral between its old friend Russia and its newfound partners in North America and Europe. It is equally instinctive for India, a continental nation, to underestimate the security concerns of smaller states, especially in faraway Europe.

Small countries seek alliances not for the fun of it; they look for alliances when their fears of more powerful neighbours become acute. The history of European international relations has been mostly about the domination of smaller countries by the more powerful with imperial ambitions. Most states in Europe had presumed that they were in a new era, where the sovereignty and territorial integrity of smaller states was not under threat from their larger neighbours.

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Russia’s invasion has sent countries on Moscow’s western flank scurrying for NATO cover. Most Central European states don’t want to rely purely on a European response to the Russian challenge. They suspect France and Germany are more likely to accommodate Moscow at their expense than stand up to Russia. For the Central Europeans, it is the US that offers a real balance against Russia.

For Indian analysts it is easy to be “objective” about Russian expansionism in Europe. But their homilies on the dangers of alliances and arms races are of no use for smaller European countries that worry about losing territory and political independence to Russia. Delhi, however, tends to be a lot more “subjective” about Chinese expansionism in Asia; for it cuts so close to the Indian bone. Distance, or the lack of it, surely changes the perspective. When your own territory is on the line, it helps concentrate your mind.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi quite early in his tenure talked about the dangers of “expansionism” or “vistarvad”. He has had a continuous taste of it from China — in 2014, 2017 and more recently in 2020. It should not be too difficult for India to understand why some Asian countries are turning to NATO. After all, India’s own turn to the Quad was a direct consequence of Chinese actions on the disputed bilateral frontier.

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For years, China has cried wolf about an impending “Asian NATO”. Way back in 2007 — when India conducted a mere joint naval exercise with the US, Japan, Australia and Singapore — Beijing called it a precursor to an “Asian NATO”. Since then “Asian NATO” has been the staple of Chinese propaganda. Chinese rhetoric, however, can’t hide the fact that it is Beijing’s expansionism that is driving its neighbours towards NATO.

Japan and South Korea are two of China’s most important East Asian neighbours and share deep cultural and civilisational bonds as well as massive commercial relationships with Beijing. Australia and New Zealand are a bit further away but are deeply tied to the Chinese economy. All four are members of the China-led regional economic architecture called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, or RCEP.

For those like Japan, who face a direct threat from China, “Ukraine could well be about the future of Asian security”. That a large nation can simply order its armed forces into a neighbour’s territory and demand the surrender of the victim’s sovereignty sends chills down the Asian spine, at a moment when China has become so much more powerful than its neighbours.

The new engagement with NATO does not mean that we now have “Asia in NATO”. Nor is there any prospect of an “Asian NATO”— the creation of a pan-Asian military alliance. Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand will not become formal members of the European military alliance. Developing deeper institutional military ties to NATO is only one element of the Asian strategy to improve deterrence against Chinese aggression.

Creation of more sophisticated national military capabilities has been the first priority of some of Beijing’s neighbours. Resolving mutual differences and strengthening security cooperation — for example between Japan and South Korea — has been another. Boosting bilateral alliances with the US is yet another.

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Even as nations in the region reboot ties with the US, Asia is also seeking to diversify its security partnerships. This has led to greater Asian engagement with Europe as well as the creation of new Indo-Pacific regional institutions – including the Quad, and the AUKUS.

The last few decades of peace and prosperity in Europe and Asia had enormously increased the influence of Russia and China in their neighbourhoods. But the imperial ambitions of both — rooted in a profound misreading of their leverage — have produced a massive geopolitical backlash. Rather than sharpen the contradiction between the US and its regional allies, Russian and Chinese actions have helped consolidate old alliances and gave birth to new security coalitions.

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Thanks to the egregious expansionism of Russia and China, the strategic integration of the Asian and European geopolitical theatres has now begun. Whether they like it or not, all countries in Europe and Asia will have to deal with the consequences.

This column first appeared in the print edition on July 5, 2022, under the title, ‘A chill down Asia’s spine’. The writer is senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, New Delhi and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express).

First published on: 05-07-2022 at 04:15:49 am
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