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War in Ukraine churns Asia’s troubled waters

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Picture: Reuters/Taken October 2019 – At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore from June 2–4, 2023, Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto has shown impatience with Western moralising over the war in Ukraine that is keenly felt in Asia and Africa, which have been subject to a history of Western meddling and exploitation, the writer says. ‘There are violations of sovereignty not only in Europe. Ask our brothers in the Middle East, ask the Africans … how many countries have invaded them?’ Prabowo said. ‘Please understand we have been victims of aggression many times.’

By Ishaan Tharoor

Almost since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, analysts in the West have wrung their hands about a perceived lack of support for Kyiv from the Global South. The explosion of open war in Europe galvanised the transatlantic alliance and ushered in a major shift in strategic thinking on the continent.

But it also exposed gaps in the priorities and concerns of governments elsewhere, many of which hoped to see an immediate end to a war that had destabilised the global economy and critical food supply chains – even if it meant Ukraine making concessions to Russian aggression.

At the Shangri-La Dialogue, a leading Asian security forum hosted in this south-east Asian city-state that concluded at the weekend, that dissonance was palpable. Indonesian Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto took the dais during a Saturday plenary session and put forward a peace plan to draw an end to the war in Ukraine – somewhat to the surprise of even some members of the Indonesian contingent in attendance.

Prabowo, who is gearing up for a presidential run next year, proposed a settlement that would usher in an immediate cessation of hostilities, compel Russia and Ukraine to withdraw 15km from their current positions to create a demilitarised buffer zone and lead to the staging of UN-backed referendums in disputed territories. He said his country would be prepared to dispatch military observers to Ukraine to help oversee such an effort.

“Let us not put blame on any side,” Prabowo said. “There are always two versions to any conflict. Both sides feel strongly of their righteousness.”

Picture: Genya Savilov / AFP / taken December 29, 2022. Rescuers clear debris of homes destroyed by a missile attack in the outskirts of Kyiv. Even as the war of attrition with Russia rages on in Ukraine, countries of the Global South, unlike their western counterparts, are calling for an immediate ceasefire and proposing paths to peace.

The proposal triggered a swift backlash. Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat, rejected what he described as a “peace of the cemeteries, a peace of surrender”, and argued that Russian aggression ought not be rewarded by further territorial concessions.

Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament, suggested the offer for Indonesian intervention was a “policy stunt” intended for a domestic audience. Then came Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who at another session later in the day scoffed at Prabowo’s suggestion, describing it as “a Russian plan”.

He said there was a long “queue” of outside powers eager to help end the conflict, but Ukraine did not “need a facilitator right now because we are still conducting war – a war with murderers, looters and rapists”. Reznikov reiterated Ukraine’s demands for more military aid to help push out Russian forces from Ukrainian territory. “We need the tools to finish this war,” he said.

In a Q&A session, Prabowo coolly advised against an overly “emotional reaction” to the current situation. He reminded the audience at the forum that Indonesia had already voted at the UN General Assembly to condemn the Russian invasion and that he was simply, in good faith, trying to find a way “to resolve this conflict”.

But Prabowo communicated an impatience with Western moralising over the war in Ukraine that is keenly felt in Asia and Africa, which were subject to a history of Western meddling and exploitation. “There are violations of sovereignty not only in Europe. Ask our brothers in the Middle East, ask the Africans … how many countries have invaded them?” Prabowo said. “Please understand we have been victims of aggression many times.”

Sitting next to Reznikov, Cui Tiankai, a retired Chinese diplomat who recently served a lengthy stint as Beijing’s ambassador in Washington, seemed to exult in the tension. “I appreciate very much efforts from our friends in the region, like Indonesia and South Africa,” said Cui, who also highlighted China’s own halting efforts to broker a truce. “With all due respect to our Euro-Atlantic friends: I don’t think you are managing effectively your own security situation. Maybe mismanaging is a better word.”

The considerable crowd of Westerners attending the Shangri-La Dialogue seemed sensitive to this perspective. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas spoke on Sunday about Ukraine’s fight as a struggle of anti-imperial resistance, rhetoric some Europeans hope resonates with audiences elsewhere. “Russia is testing us all to see whether it can get away with conquering and colonising an independent country in the 21st century,” said Kallas, who later inaugurated her small Baltic nation’s new embassy in Singapore.

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said the war in Ukraine and the reckonings it forced on the continent were a wake-up call with far-reaching implications. Europeans now recognised their vulnerability to chaos in other parts of the world and saw the need to bolster security relationships in Asia. “We have been too focused on economic relations and not enough on global political developments,” he said.

Pistorius announced that his nation would dispatch a frigate and a supply ship to the South China Sea for freedom of navigation exercises. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace also touted his government’s permanent deployment of two warships in the region. Such moves add to Beijing’s fears of geopolitical encirclement by the US and its allies, but signal a degree of engagement and attention to other Asian powers that may have not existed in prior decades. “I’ve got a powerful sense that countries in the region welcome the fact that the UK is present in the region, alongside other European partners,” David Lammy, a prominent Labour Party politician and Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, told me on the sidelines of the dialogue.

Ukraine loomed over proceedings often as a metaphor and cautionary tale. One prominent official after the next summoned the effects and costs of Russia’s invasion as something no one wanted to see repeated in Asia. Mounting US-China tensions and a worrying lack of substantive communication between both sides has put the region on edge. “As many ministers have said, if you have a simultaneous war in Europe and Asia, it would be catastrophic globally,” Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters.

“There was a real sincerity and urgency that what happened in Ukraine must not happen in Asia.” Hanna Shelest, an influential foreign policy expert in Kyiv who attended the forum in Singapore, made a more direct plea. She told me that she hoped China, in particular, would understand that their current course of providing cover for the Kremlin was worth correcting. She urged Beijing to separate its views of the war in Ukraine from its broader confrontation with the US. Ukraine should not become hostage to the US-China dynamic, she said.

This article was first published in The Washington Post