What the war in Ukraine could mean for the Indo-Pacific

Rob Rabel

Emeritus Professor Roberto Rabel is a professor fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies at Te Herenga Waka — Victoria University of Wellington and a visiting professor at the University of Warsaw.

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Indo-Pacific criticism of Russia must rest less on Putin’s character regime and more on what its behavior means for peace and prosperity

There has been much conjecture about the implications for the Indo-Pacific region of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. What it could mean for Chinese designs on Taiwan has received particular attention. Some argue it will deter China, because of the robust and unified Western response to Russian aggression. Others suggest that this war in Europe is a strategic distraction for the United States that will draw its focus and resources away from the Indo-Pacific, thereby easing China’s path to regional dominance.

As these competing assessments suggest, there is room for debate about the possible significance of the conflict in Ukraine for the Indo-Pacific. Much depends on developments in the war and subsequent relations between the West, Russia and others.

However, there is already one feature of the region’s response to the war that merits attention. While China’s stance has not surprised many in the West, there is disappointment about that of the world’s largest democracy, India. But Delhi’s guarded response is by no means unique. With the exception of Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, most in the region have taken a “neutral” stance like India’s.

Why have so many countries in the Indo-Pacific taken positions on the war in stark contrast to those of Europe and the United States? The reasons vary but, if one listens to Indian policymakers and academics, their response is grounded in realist considerations about national interests. For India, it involves not upsetting Moscow lest it draw closer to China, compounded by Delhi’s continued dependence on Russian arms. For others, the war is a distant, intra-European affair which should be settled quickly between the warring parties, especially since it is already having negative economic repercussions globally. For all of them, pragmatism has prevailed over principle.

Worryingly, these pragmatic regional responses show a disregard for Russia’s blatant violation of international law and norms, including fundamental principles of the United Nations’ Charter. If China cannot even mildly rebuke Moscow, it signals to the world that Beijing’s growing partnership with Putin matters more than its usually adamant insistence on the inviolability of sovereign borders and of non-interference in domestic affairs of others. Similar Responses based on Realpolitik calculations by other states suggest that it would be naïve to expect stability in the Indo-Pacific to be sustained simply by mutual respect for a rules-based order rather than forms of order based on what power can enforce.

This reality may be the most important lesson for democracies in terms of what the varying responses to the war in Ukraine confirm about the Indo-Pacific — and augur about its future.

There are several associated implications. One is the need for democracies to prioritize cooperation with each other in the knowledge that enlarging democratic space in the Indo-Pacific will be challenging. However, another implication is the need for democracies to work with both like-minded and unlike-minded states to ensure conflicts of the kind raging in Ukraine are avoided in the Indo-Pacific.

The dominant response in the region to the Ukraine crisis also throws into question the efficacy of drawing a dichotomous division between democracies and autocracies, as the Biden administration is inclined to do. If states are measured by this benchmark in their reactions to the war, then countries like India, Indonesia or Malaysia do not appear fully aligned with the democratic camp. While they may be imperfect democracies, are they more so than Hungary or Ukraine itself? Is it wise to judge them in this way?

A more judicious approach would be to acknowledge how different interests have affected their positions. After all, those who have supported Ukraine are arguably acting on the basis of interests just as much as those who have abstained. Support for Ukraine has conveniently aligned interests and values ​​for states like Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

That does not mean ignoring values ​​and letting interests dominate exclusively. Rather, democracies must develop smarter strategies, based on highlighting the importance of basic rules of international order. To be credible in the Indo-Pacific, Russia’s criticism must rest less on the character of its regime, malign as it may be, and more on what its behavior means for peace and prosperity, both globally and regionally. Singapore’s “principled” response to the war is very much framed in this way.

Thus, a twofold approach is needed in the Indo-Pacific: alongside strengthening solidarity between democracies, there must be an emphasis on the importance of rules-based approaches. The region’s diverse character has been very much on the show in the varied responses to the violations of sovereignty and blatant aggression unleashed by Putin against Ukraine. In this context, it is critical for all states in the region to understand how their own interests would be at risk if Russia’s actions were replicated by any power in the Indo-Pacific. In a region of unlike-minded states with often competing interests, adherence to basic rules of international order is essential to sustain the peace and prosperity which has made the Indo-Pacific the world’s most dynamic region over the past few decades. Realism demands nothing less.

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