What happens in Europe cannot be expected to remain in Europe, particularly in this interconnected world. As war clouds gather in that continent with Russo-Western relations deteriorating by the day over Ukraine, ripples, indeed waves, are expected in consequence on the waters of faraway Asia. There, despite the onslaught of the Covid pandemic, nations appeared till recently to be devoting themselves to economy-boosting efforts, regionally expanding trade (ASEAN), or domestically sharing prosperity (China). Now suddenly, as Russia and the West try to tap the reservoir of till-now vocal support from their respective camp-followers in that region, these countries feel trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. Slowly but surely, given the imperatives of geo-politics, they may be constrained to take sides, albeit in the case of some, most reluctantly.
Take China, for instance. Between the US and Russia, China faced a Hobson's choice, for given its burgeoning fierce rivalry with the former, its rational pick would most certainly be the latter. Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are political besties on the global scene who have met numerous times proclaiming mutual support. But on the current issue, initially, the involvement of Ukraine posed a modicum of problem for China. China relied substantially on Ukraine's military manufacturing know-how and China itself was Ukraine's largest trading partner. So, making a choice on this would have been something China would be happy to pass. But alas that was not to be! Even though US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had called his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to help rein in Russia, and China had initially urged calm equally upon both Moscow and Washington, Moscow's pleadings and pressures on Beijing ultimately prevailed.
Already, Sino-US relations were reaching their nadir. The Biden Administration was relentless in its efforts to contain the spread of Chinese influence in every possible way. Now as China was preparing to host the winter Olympics seeking to dazzle the world with its pomp and performance, the US led a campaign for its diplomatic boycott. Putin chose that moment of Chinese angst to fly to Beijing and clasp Xi in a strong bearish hug. The result was a 5300-word joint statement describing the friendship between the two countries as having "no limits". For the first time China came out unequivocally in support of Russia in opposing NATO's eastward expansion, and Russia in turn endorsed China's position in clearly opposing any kind of independence for Taiwan. Never before Russia and China's declaration of mutual support was so unambiguous. The Russian Bear and the Chinese dragon were now locked in a tight embrace with nary a sunlight between them. Russia and China were now in the same camp pitted against the US and the West in this dangerous dichotomy in global politics.
India was another Asian power that is perhaps also forced to make a choice it would have been happier to avoid. Washington's confrontation with Moscow could not have come at a worse time for New Delhi. Even normally India would be reluctant to choose between the two protagonists, because it seemed to want to link itself strategically to both, increasingly a difficult endeavour. At this point in time India is poised to procure five S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia and badly requires a waiver from the US in terms of sanctions, which for the same reason had earlier been slapped on Turkey. Now was obviously not the time for India to show any thickening of camaraderie with the US. Even with China, India is often unwilling to throw down the gauntlet in any definitive manner, as New Delhi well knows if push comes to shove, and a shooting conflict with China does occur, significant actual US support in men and materiel might be wanting. But India's options were shrinking. Its Quad partners the US, Australia and Japan thought it the appropriate time to flex Quad muscles and try and link the contests in the two theatres, Europe and Asia. Australia hosted a Quad Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Melbourne. India's diplomatic skills might have avoided critically unfriendly references to Beijing or Moscow, but the outcome of the meeting left no doubt as to India's choice of camps- Euro- American or Sino-Russian. For India, getting together of China and Russia is not good news. Also because at the Olympics in Beijing, Putin invited Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan to visit Russia soon. Moscow had held back on hosting a Pakistani Head of Government for over twenty years , mainly perhaps not to give New Delhi any cause for umbrage.
The upshot of all this would be that if because of the tensions, war breaks out in Europe, Asia is unlikely to remain unique for long.
In the meantime, in the main politico-diplomatic battleground of Europe the situation was hotting up. The flurry of activities, such as visits back and forth of leaders to various capitals, were coming to naught. Within the western camp, Continental Europeans such as France and Germany were as cautious as the Anglo-Saxons, the US and the UK were gung-ho, predicting the imminence of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. This, of course, was being denied by Putin and the Russians. Nevertheless, Moscow does not deny that the situation is serious, nor would it specifically rule out war, not because they would invade Ukraine, but because the West was intent on the eastward expansion of NATO! In the meantime, the Ukrainians, at the very eye in the storm are calling for calm, with their President, Volodymyr Zelensky warning that "panic is our enemy's best friend".
There are fears therefore that should war, which has been described as 'imminent' for a remarkably long time, already actually come about, it would be the result of a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy! Even if there not be war, and diplomacy manages to avert it for now, the world will be divided into two distinct camps, the US and its Western allies on one side and Russia and China on the other. The Communique in Beijing is most significant as it portrays not just two camps pitted against each other, but two different socio-political models offered to the rest of the world. The neutrals and the non-aligneds of the past are being forced by circumstances to make choices. The US and its allies picking up India, Sweden and Finland for instance, and Russia and China roping in Pakistan, Iran, perhaps Turkey, and most certainly, North Korea. It might become a battle of two political paradigms, each seeking to shape future human destiny.
Now a footnote to the crisis in Ukraine. It is tempting to recall that it was that region that in October 1864 witnessed a disastrously suicidal failed action of the British cavalry. It has been glorified for its valour in poetry by Alfred Lord Tennyson as the "Charge of the Light Brigade". In a more sobre assessment a French Marshal described it as "magnificent, but not war".
Must history repeat itself in such predictable fashion?
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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