ST Roundtable: Ukraine crisis will shift US focus from Asia-Pacific back to Europe

China could possibly be the biggest beneficiary, say panellists.

Arvind Jayaram

Arvind Jayaram

The Straits Times


Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb 4, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

March 2, 2022

SINGAPORE – The Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the US back into Europe and the consequences of a shift in focus from the Asia-Pacific may be seen in the coming years, with China possibly the biggest beneficiary, panellists told a Straits Times Roundtable on the Ukraine crisis on Tuesday (March 1).

Professor Kishore Mahbubani, a veteran Singapore diplomat and distinguished fellow at the Asia Research Institute at the National University of Singapore, said there were many possible scenarios arising out of the invasion, one of which would be consolidation of the Western alliance.

“Europe will become definitely much closer to the United States and that is, frankly, a minus for China,” he said.

But he also floated an alternative scenario.

“Right now, so far, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin has done very, very badly in the first week of this invasion of Ukraine. But if somehow things turn around, he takes over control of Ukraine, and then, surprisingly, he’s seen as a great hero by the Russian people, he gets canonised by the Orthodox Church, and he is now seen as a major historical figure, suddenly you have a different kind of Russia to deal with, and both Europe and the US will be focused so much on Russia that China will get another 10 free years to grow,” said Prof Mahbubani.

“Just as the Iraq war was a geopolitical gift to China, it gave China 10 free years to grow, this Ukraine thing could also give China 10 free years to grow. And then by the time the United States turns around to look at China, 10 years from now, China’s GNP (gross national product) will be bigger than the United States’,” he said.

“So you see, in life, there will always be alternative scenarios. So for us, from the point of view of a small state like Singapore, we’ve got to plan on the basis of all these scenarios and see which ones play out.

“I will be very cautious about making any definitive long-term predictions of the outcomes. I suspect we will continue to be surprised by the results,” added Prof Mahbubani.

ST associate editor Ravi Velloor, another panellist at the roundtable, also pointed to the fact that the US has turned its attention to Europe.

“The Americans are very easily distracted, and Putin, by his actions, has brought America back into Europe fully. I mean, here they were talking about the Indo-Pacific, we are waiting to see big things happen, but with one fell stroke, and even before it’s happened, American attention, Western attention has turned so much towards Europe,” said Mr Velloor.

ST global affairs correspondent Jonathan Eyal concurred with that view.

“Clearly, in the short term, it will result in that, there’s no question about it. I mean, one of the big problems that we had for the last three decades is that very often, it was difficult to persuade the US administration to take Russia seriously. I mean, very often, they would consult with Russia or inform Russia about what they’re doing, pay lip service to the idea of cooperating with the Russians, but the truth is that nobody took them seriously, and that was one of the sources of immense frustration for Vladimir Putin,” said Mr Eyal.

“Even when they were discussing nuclear disarmament, the demand increasingly from Washington is that this should be discussed with China included, that just doing it with Russia was no longer sufficient. So there definitely has been and will be a pull of the United States to Europe because, quite frankly, that is the biggest security crisis at the moment,” he added.

Mr Eyal also warned that Mr Putin’s gambit on Ukraine may not play out in the way that he envisaged.

“What has startled me the most so far is that President Putin of Russia became the prisoner of his own misconceived ideas. He genuinely believed that Ukraine was a ‘fake state’, as he put it, that will collapse like a badly baked souffle the moment you touch it.

“And so, what he did, he sent very small numbers of troops, highly mobile, but very very limited contingents straight into the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, obviously with the intent of decapitating its government on the expectation that he is going to be received with flowers or that Ukraine is suddenly going to revert to Mother Russia. Of course, what has happened is that these troops were not sufficient to take on the capital, and he lost the initiative. And a lot of things followed afterwards,” said Mr Eyal.

“The whole way that the sanctions that rained upon Russia would have been conceived, would have been very different if Ukraine really did crumble in the first day or two,” he added.

Prof Mahbubani expressed admiration for the way Ukraine has stood up to Russia.

“However, at the end of the day, overwhelming military power still has an effect, and it’s conceivable that Ukraine could still fall completely under Russian control. And then it will be, of course, a darker world if that happens,” he said.

“But at the end of the day, we also got to figure out how we avoid worst-case outcomes from Ukraine. And this requires leadership, requires statesmanship to find some kind of solution. And I hope that people would try to avoid worst-case outcomes in Ukraine and try to make sure that we get some kind of like, what Henry Kissinger said in the 2014 article in The Washington Post, ‘find a solution that neither humiliates Russia, nor humiliates Ukraine’,” he said.

“That’s our challenge today. So if we can find that and come out in that direction, then hopefully we will not be worse off. But there’s no doubt at the same time that this event has changed the course of world history, and I think Ukraine’s courage has also taught the world, and especially taught any great power, be careful before you invade another country. It’s never that easy,” said Prof Mahbubani.

Closer China-Russia ties
The panellists said the crippling sanctions imposed by the West against Russia will push Moscow closer to China. But Prof Mahbubani said any alliance between the two would not be natural, noting that the longest border that Russia has is with China.

“If I were a Russian strategic planner, I would worry about that long border rather than the European border,” he said, noting that the latter was a still a very relatively peaceful one.

“So in the long run, I don’t think there’ll be a natural alliance between Russia and China, although now, for the next few years, there will be a kind of pact where they will work together, for obvious reasons, because both are benefiting from it in the short term,” the veteran diplomat said.

Mr Velloor observed that there was already evidence that both countries were cooperating with one another on Ukraine.

“Well, in terms of influencing what happened, I think, the best evidence is that Putin waited for the Winter Olympic Games to be over before he moved on Ukraine. So that’s the immediate impact, part of it,” said Mr Velloor.

He also highlighted the recent summit between President Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, in which the two nations set out a common worldview in a way they had never done before.

“It puts Putin and Russia’s fate more into Chinese hands than ever before. In a way, it sort of underscores Putin’s complete dependence or increasing dependence on China in a whole lot of sectors, including energy.

“And what he’s willing to concede, including space in the Arctic. China describes itself as a near-Arctic state. It’s nowhere near the Arctic. And Putin is ready and welcoming of the Chinese presence in the Arctic. He’s cooperative in that. And it speaks about cooperating in new fields.

“So I think it is something that will have a tremendous impact on the world, on Asia, particularly,” he said.

ST Roundtable: Ukraine crisis will shift US focus from Asia-Pacific back to Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb 4, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Queried by ST foreign editor Bhagyashree Garekar, the moderator of the roundtable, on whether Russia was willing to settle for being the junior partner in the relationship, Mr Eyal said: “There’s no question about it. The Chinese economy is about eight times the size of the Russian economy. And let’s remember that when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia and China were more or less on a par in terms of the size of the economy at the time. So it’s very much the junior partner. The Russians do a good job at disguising it.”

“But there is still a learning curve for the Russians as well to start realising what being a junior partner to China may actually mean. And I don’t think they’ve been that way, and I think that that is the bit of fallout from the Ukraine crisis that will come their way.”

Dollar denial
China is also undoubtedly watching the catastrophic impact that US sanctions are having on the Russian economy very closely, pondering over situations where it too might be denied access to the global banking system and contemplating alternative payment mechanisms, according to the panellists.

Prof Mahbubani said the coordinated Western sanctions that have severely damaged Russia’s economy within a matter of days underscored the fact that the most powerful weapon that the US has deployed against Russia was not its aircraft carriers, not its strategic bombers, but the US dollar.

“I’m sure China is watching very carefully how the use of the US dollar has crippled the Russian economy significantly. And then the Chinese must be saying, ‘Aha, when I have a problem with the US, they will use the US dollar. So what do I do?'” said Prof Mahbubani.

He said the use of sanctions against Russia was likely to accelerate in the next 10 years a plan by China to create international alternative payment mechanisms so that the country – the largest trading power in the world – would be able to trade with the world with or without the US dollar.

“Now, this is not possible today, by the way, not possible. And the renminbi, by the way, will not become an international convertible currency. It will not. So you cannot use renminbi, so you’ve got to find something else. And that something else, I suspect, is what China is going to look for.

“And as it builds it up, it’ll be very gradual. As it builds it up using AI (artificial intelligence), using blockchain technology, whatever it is, and then when that day comes, the capacity of the United States to apply pressure on China will diminish significantly,” said Prof Mahbubani.

“So which is why, I’m sure, from the Chinese point of view, every day, they must be watching what happened, and say, ‘Okay, this will be done to us, to China, what do we do?’ And they must be working out systematically the responses to each of these moves,” he said.

Mr Eyal said the impact of the targeted sanctions against Russia was a clear warning to Beijing that economic prowess would not be sufficient to safeguard its economy in case America did the same to China.

“The fact that you’ve got national reserves of the central bank makes no difference at the end because you can’t move or spend those national reserves if the United States and most Western countries impose sanctions on you. Now, this has a very fundamental and very big question mark about the international system, and how a country like Russia and China will behave within it,” said Mr Eyal.

Challenge to global norms
Mr Eyal, the third panellist, observed that while the Russian invasion was an egregious violation of international law, there were two other concepts that needed to be rejected.

“The first is the idea that it’s for someone else to decide on who is a nation. The whole theory of Russia is that Ukraine is not a nation. If we go down the road that it’s up to one country to decide which other country is a nation, God help us,” said Mr Eyal.

“And the second point is that the idea that it’s up to someone to decide whether a country joins an alliance or does not. Now, I can see why neighbours will have strong views about whether you join an alliance or not, but in terms of principle, these are the fundamental fabric of society, of international law that are being challenged, and they go beyond just the physical violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty at the moment.

“And that’s absolutely applicable to Asia as well as it is to Europe,” said Mr Eyal.

Defining moment
The convening of a special emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly over the crisis in Ukraine could be a defining moment for the global body after the Security Council failed to adopt a resolution condemning the Russian invasion of its neighbour, according to the panellists.

They noted that it was the 11th time in the UN’s 77-year history that a special emergency session of the General Assembly had been called.

“Now, of course, the General Assembly decisions are not likely to be binding on anyone, in particular, but nevertheless, the voice of the international community is being heard now, as we speak, and 90 countries have sponsored that resolution, Singapore included,” said Mr Eyal.

“In fact, it’s almost the smaller the country, the more likely it is to be on that particular list of sponsors. So yes, it is still a glass half-empty rather than half-full, but it is more than what we’ve had in previous crises,” he said.

The fence-sitters
India’s decision to abstain from a vote at the UN Security Council last week to condemn the Russian invasion stemmed from a pragmatic consideration of its own security considerations, though the West is less than enthused by the move, according to the panellists.

“It’s tough to say whether it’s going to regret it, but it’s clearly something that they thought through very carefully before they did it. And I can’t speak for New Delhi’s thinking, but from Singapore, looking at what’s happened, I try to analyse why they’ve done it. And I get the answers when I analyse it,” said Mr Velloor.

One of the primary considerations was India’s heavy reliance on Russia for the supply of arms and weapons to India’s military.

“The Indian Air Force has got, by my count, at least 270 (Russian-made) Sukhoi Su-30s. If you look at their main battle tank, they have about 1,300 T-90s that are made in Russia. Their submarines, I think, if I’m not mistaken, they have between eight and nine kilo class submarines. Their indigenous nuclear submarine project would not have been possible without Russian help,” said Mr Velloor.

He also noted the recent sale of BrahMos cruise missiles by New Delhi to the Philippines, pointing out that the weapons were co-designed with Russia. In addition, the new generation BrahMos II missile – a hypersonic variant – is also being co-developed with Moscow’s assistance.

However, Mr Velloor also said that New Delhi’s calculus may solely boil down to the vote Russia holds on the United Nations Security Council, which has prevented arch-rival Pakistan from making their dispute over Kashmir a multilateral debate.

“The Russians have been willing to use (their veto) as many times as the Indians wanted it, and that is the most significant value of that relationship – that vote in the Security Council,” said Mr Velloor.

In addition, even though India’s border dispute on its eastern flank is with Russia’s close ally, China, President Putin has been more than willing to accommodate New Delhi’s requests.

“Despite the Russian entente with China, when it came to the crisis in Ladakh, the Russians opened their military stores to the Indians, and said, ‘Come take what you need.’ China tried to stop it, they could not,” said Mr Velloor.

Mr Velloor noted that a brittle peace was brokered by Russia between India and China when Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov sat down in Moscow with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and their Indian counterpart, Mr S. Jaishankar.

“In the Russian mindset, there still is room for a Russia-India-China relationship, and you see that in the joint statement that they signed in Beijing when Putin went to see Xi Jinping. So that’s the background to that vote,” Mr Velloor said.

In what may add to the consternation in Western capitals, India was not the only country to abstain from the Security Council vote.

“Very significantly, the United Arab Emirates also abstained, and I think you need to watch that very closely. Why did they do that? So it’s not just the Indians, but somebody in the Middle East that is quite close to the Americans, they in fact have plans to buy the F-35, they’re building a relationship with Israel, and yet, they abstained. So what is it that they’re trying to do?” Mr Velloor asked.

Weighing in on India’s stance, Mr Eyal said that while it was unlikely that an Indian vote at the UN would have swayed Moscow’s perspective on the relationship, there were a lot of question marks in Europe about New Delhi’s stance. behaviour.

“The rather ironic joke that I heard is that India is a staunch supporter of the principle of sovereignty of states when it applies to India,” said Mr Eyal.

Professor Mahbubani said “having the Russian veto as an ally is actually very important for India”, given that the third world country does not have a veto of its own in the Security Council.

Russian ambassador Vassily Nebenzia votes nay at the UN Security Council meeting on Feb 25, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

Professor Mahbubani believed that such emergency sessions should be convened more frequently.

“It’s actually a very positive development that the General Assembly has been convened because the Security Council is completely blocked. But let’s do it consistently, let’s do it every time, let’s not make it exceptional, because then you’ll find the real power of the General Assembly coming back,” he said.

Paradox of Asean
Asean’s tepid call for diplomacy to resolve the Ukraine-Russia conflict stands in stark contrast to the “crystal clear” stance taken by the Singapore Government.

But therein lies the paradox of Asean, Prof Mahbubani pointed out at the ST Roundtable.

“Because it’s so weak, everybody underestimates it and doesn’t appreciate the strong historic contributions that Asean has made,” he said.

“So, for example, the biggest event of 2022 before this Russian invasion of Ukraine was the launch of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s largest free trade agreement.”

“Asean managed to persuade Japan, South Korea and China to sign a free trade agreement. Now, that’s a really big deal that is changing the course of world history, and only Asean could do it because it’s so weak, everybody trusts it,” he said.

Prof Mahbubani noted that the United States recently found it difficult to stage a news conference involving Japan and South Korea because two of its closest security allies in Asia were embroiled in a spat.

“So the weakness of Asean therefore, which is a liability in some areas, is also an asset in some areas,”he said.

“But, in any case, even if Asean issued a strong statement (on Ukraine), it would make no difference whatsoever. So in a sense, whether it’s a weak statement or a strong statement, nothing is going to change,” he added.

Sense of deja vu
Mr Velloor, another panellist at the roundtable, noted that Europe was a continent with largely settled borders with systems in place such as the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Asia, on the other hand, had nothing similar.

“When it comes collectively, there is quite a bit of dialling down,” Mr Velloor said, referring to the Asean statement.

He also expressed a sense of deja vu at watching the scenes unfolding in Ukraine, likening them to the start of the civil war in Sri Lanka.

“If I take you back 40 years to the start of the conflict in Sri Lanka, you had a prime minister in India who was very insecure. Indira Gandhi had problems on her borders, Pakistan was to the west and China to the east. And then the Sri Lankans were to the south.

“At that point, she was very aligned to the Soviet Union, as it was then called. And Sri Lanka, under President J.R. Jayewardene, began to open up his economy to the West. He allowed the Voice of America to set up a transmitter in his country. And this triggered all of Mrs Gandhi’s insecurities, and she did not want to open the southern flank, having enough to do on her western and eastern flanks.

“And so she set about destabilising Sri Lanka. And it proved very costly, not just for Sri Lanka. It’s still suffering, as you know. Currently, there are food shortages there, it’s in a terrible plight.

“But it cost India greatly. India lost troops, it even lost Mrs Gandhi’s son, who had been prime minister with the potential of returning to power. It was an intervention that proved very costly. And I fear, today, sitting here and looking at Ukraine, that some of what I saw 40 years ago is going to play out into an immense tragedy in Europe.”

German rethink
The Russian invasion has spurred Germany – for the first time in its post-World War II history – to boost its defence budget and to supply arms to a country at war.

The panellists believed Mr Putin’s move led the the Germans to shift away faster and further from their pacifist constitution than any US president, and that Europe would never be the same after the war in Ukraine ends.

“In the last weekend, Mr Putin has managed to shift Germany more than (former US president Donald) Trump beating his table or anything, or any other American president.

They passed the bill authorising spending of 100 billion euros (S$151.4 billion) extra on the defence budget, meeting exactly what the Germans promised they were going to do and never intended to do up to now in terms of defence capabilities,” said Mr Eyal, referring to Mr Trump’s demands that Germany – a Nato member – raise its defence spending.

Other countries would also have to follow suit, Mr Eyal said, and the moves have shaken up Europe’s world view. Germany has also scrapped the multi-billion dollar Nord Stream 2 pipeline for the supply of gas from Russia to Europe.

“There is a very strong feeling in Europe that the last 30 years, the so-called post-Cold War period, is over now. And with it went a lot of these rather silly, I would put, assumptions that somehow war has been banished from Europe.

“It was almost a racist kind of argument that white people don’t do it to each other, if I can be so crude, and a sort of a shock in Europe that you can have a full-scale war on the continent. We shouldn’t have been shocked, but we were,” he said.

“This idea that we banished great power politics or balance of power politics or spheres of influence, the sort of the unreal discourse that we’re only talking about values and not talking about influence, all that kind of stuff that was generated for a while, which I know my colleagues have frequently tried to puncture in the past, all this is now gone.

“I mean, even the Germans now have, and I say even the Germans were the most reluctant to face that reality, now have to face it. So I think, for Europe, this was a cold shower and I think the Europe at the end of this crisis will be a very different Europe,” said Mr Eyal.

He also raised the question of how feasible it was to re-engage with Russia following the imposition of draconian sanctions and the supply of arms to a country it was at war with.

“There is a very big question at the end of this war in Ukraine, which is how do we engage with Russia? What is it? I mean, nobody is now saying, how do you dial down from the current draconian sanctions?

“How do you talk to them? What is the relationship that we have to do with them? I would say, if you asked me would they change Asia, perhaps it would change Asia less at the moment, but it changed Europe in a fundamental way,” said Mr Eyal.

scroll to top