What does the 2014 Ukraine crisis mean for geopolitics and strategic risks in Asia? It is tempting to leap to doom-laden conclusions that Russia’s assault on Ukrainian sovereignty will spur China to show equal disregard for the independence of its neighbors, ushering in new risks of confrontation and conflict. According to this argument, China is emboldened and frontline U.S. allies like Japan and the Philippines are dismayed by Russia's blatant disregard for U.S. warnings against intervention in Ukraine. Even allies at distance from China, such as Australia, might quietly be wondering about long-term U.S. resolve, according to this logic. But all this overlooks the fundamental point that Ukraine—like Georgia before it in 2008—is not a U.S. ally. If anything, the value of alliances has been reaffirmed by recent events in Europe.
That would change, of course, were the United States to fail to support a NATO ally, such as a Baltic state, against Russian intimidation, but there is nothing to suggest that will occur; indeed, Putin has given NATO an enormous and self-defeating relevance boost. Moreover, after having its bluff called over real or perceived diplomatic red lines in Syria and Ukraine, Washington may be even more determined to hold the line if an ally or a core principle such as freedom of navigation is coercively confronted in Asia.
The ultimate lessons Asia and the rest of the world draw from the Ukraine situation will depend very much on what happens next. With President Obama due to visit Asia in April and ominous rumblings occurring again on the Korean Peninsula, now is the time for the United States to signal that its “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific is real and enduring—regardless of how bad the situation with Russia becomes.
A second troubling interpretation of what Crimea means for Asia is that it will lead to the dissipation or trifurcation of the United States’ strategic attention. Washington's much-touted rebalance was already facing skepticism among Indo-Pacific allies and partners, who have seen modest and uneven follow-through to grand pronouncements like President Obama's November 2011 speech in Canberra, in which the “pivot” was emphatically proclaimed. The U.S. foreign and defense policy establishment now faces challenges on three fronts at once: Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia.
East Asian tensions remain serious. Differences between China and Japan over disputed islands and history carry the small but real possibility of war and certainly the likelihood of prolonged confrontation between Asia’s two wealthiest powers. The chance of conflict or crisis in the South China Sea has likewise not diminished, as demonstrated by China’s recent attempts to blockade the Philippines’ resupply of an outpost in disputed waters. And North Korea remains a wildcard, as the recent exchange of artillery fire with South Korea reminds us.
Is the United States willing to show leadership in managing simultaneous crises across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe? How will allies in one region read Washington’s handling, or perceived mishandling, of troubles in another? Will they have doubts about U.S. reliability and begin looking either to their own defenses or to make concessions to coercion? Is it fanciful fearmongering to start thinking of the prospect of a future double Cold War, with U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China relations in the freezer at the same time? All these questions are being raised at a time when most Americans are weary of overseas entanglement and want foreign policy—and every other kind of policy—to begin at home.
Again, the answers to these questions may not be as grim as those observers who are fixated on the relative decline of the United States would assume. Putin’s affront to Ukraine and the sanctity of international agreements has been a rude wake-up call to Western Europe in its postmodern slumber. But it has been an alarm bell for the United States too. Russia’s actions serve as a reminder about how great powers behave and about what calculated risks a rival is willing to run when it sees its interests ill-served by a status quo that other powerful states are not determined to uphold.
In that sense, perhaps the Crimea crisis will make the United States more serious—not less—about stability, presence, and deterrence in Asia. And while there may be calls for Washington to sustain or even enhance its military presence in Europe, any outcome that slows or limits cuts to major U.S. defense programs will have collateral benefits for U.S. capabilities globally and thus in Asia.
The lessons that China may draw from the crisis also need to be considered. From Taiwan to the South and East China seas to the China-India border, there are no neat analogies to Crimea in Asia. It would also be simplistic to assume that the leadership in Beijing is rejoicing that its strategic partner Russia has poked a stick in Washington’s eye and gotten away with it. Admittedly, there may be some renewed emphasis on the China-Russia strategic relationship, which was already receiving a boost through renewed Russian arms sales after a lull of some years. But China and Russia are partners of convenience, not allies, and their relationship is complicated by long-term currents of mistrust, including over Russia’s far eastern territories.
For a short time, China may draw some comfort from the fact that U.S. attention has been distracted from the maritime disputes on China’s eastern edge. But Russia has now blatantly breached a bedrock principle of China’s declared foreign policy: noninterference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It may now be harder for Beijing to deflect international attention away from Tibet and Xinjiang, since one of the purposes of its non-interference policy has been to provide a moral and legal justification for opposing foreign scrutiny of and interference in those troubled provinces.
Yet China’s support for some kind of international mediation or monitoring of the Ukraine situation or reiteration of its earlier call for “respect for international law” would present its own challenges for Beijing. Such a position would raise awkward questions, for example, about its present rejection of an attempt by the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to resolve China’s maritime dispute with the Philippines. No wonder China has had to go through excruciating diplomatic gymnastics to maintain what it has called its “objective, just, fair, and peaceful” propaganda line of neither condemning nor endorsing Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
On the eve of President Obama’s Asia visit, the United States’ Asian allies should strive to ensure they have his sustained strategic attention. But they should be more concerned by U.S. domestic challenges and the more general woes of the Obama administration—which have hampered effective strategic policy—than by the fear that the Crimean drama will mark the end of rebalancing. If Putin has stirred the United States from strategic inattention and put geostrategy abruptly back on the world map, he may inadvertently have done a favor not only for NATO but for the United States’ friends in Asia.