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1914 and 2014 in Europe and Asia

Tags: Russia , China , United States , Balance of Power , Europe

Saunders, Paul J.

March 10, 2014

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The crisis in Ukraine and Crimea could have profound strategic implications, not only for parties directly involved in the confrontation but also for East Asia and beyond. How the crisis plays out, notes Paul Saunders, will affect ties between Beijing and Moscow and their respective diplomatic positions in the international community.

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For many in Asia, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine and Crimea may seem quite remote. Kiev is approximately 5,100 miles from Tokyo—almost a quarter of the way around the Earth—and Ukraine is not among the world’s top 50 economies, a fact that limits the degree to which globalization can shrink such distances. Nevertheless, the eventual outcome of the confrontation between Ukraine, Russia, the United States, and the European Union could have profound strategic implications in East Asia and beyond.

Just a few weeks ago, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe compared East Asia’s tense political and security environment to that in Europe on the eve of World War I, warning that today’s competition between China and Japan resembled that between Germany and Britain in 1914 and that past economic interdependence did not succeed in preventing war. Today, Abe’s words may resonate even more deeply in Europe itself.

In contemporary Europe, Russia is less like Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany and more like the Austro-Hungarian Empire—a complex, multinational state struggling to maintain its role in a changing world where its existing model is decreasingly competitive. Ukraine is like Serbia, then a troubled neighbor of Austria-Hungary pursuing closer ties to France to protect its independence and the source of the assassin who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the event that catalyzed the war. Extending the analogy further, and acknowledging that historical analogies are inexact and at best illustrative, the EU is playing France’s role. The United States is the Britain of 1914—a dominant global power with important interests on the European continent.

This is a different picture than that described by Mr. Abe, but there is one critical element of continuity—Beijing as the new Berlin, the capital of a self-confident rising power dissatisfied with the existing international order. As Germany’s relations with Austria-Hungary were decisive along the road to World War I, China’s relations with Russia will powerfully shape the long-term consequences of today’s Ukraine crisis.

Cost of War

Before proceeding further, it is important to highlight one fundamental difference between 1914 and its eerie echoes in 2014—nuclear weapons. Four of the world’s five formally declared nuclear weapons states are immediate parties to the Ukraine dispute, something that makes armed conflict much less likely but also vastly more dangerous, a century after what many in the West still call the Great War. Because of the risks of nuclear conflict, few expect the United States or its NATO allies to use force to eject Russia from Crimea. Conversely, few expect Russia to threaten vital Western interests.

The Swallow’s Nest near Yalta in Crimea. © DDima
The Swallow’s Nest near Yalta in Crimea. © DDima
That said, one of the greatest lessons of World War I is that huge and destructive wars can happen even when no one wants or expects them. Moreover, conflict among major powers can be quite costly without any direct combat between them—here, the Cold War is the best example. Nuclear deterrence prevented a US-Soviet war and prevented Soviet attacks on major US allies in Europe and Asia, but it allowed large-scale wars in places like Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and Afghanistan, not to mention a host of civil wars in the developing world. The cumulative cost in lives and money was enormous.

China’s ties to Russia have so far been complex and rife with mutual suspicion—their strategic interests are not identical and neither applies its historical neuralgia and psychological complexes solely to the United States, Europe, or Japan. Although they cooperate tactically, especially in the UN Security Council, China and Russia have been competing economically in Central Asia. China is winning there, but Moscow has been trying to strengthen its diplomatic position in Asia. In some respects, the decline in US-Russia relations since 2011 has worked to Japan’s advantage, in that Moscow has been unable to balance Beijing through a credible relationship with Washington and has been seeking other partners.

At the same time, the United States, the EU, and China have very powerful economic incentives to avoid a breakdown. Thus far, the EU has been unwilling to jeopardize its economic ties to Russia, which are considerably smaller, and France’s Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius went so far as to state that his government is not yet prepared to consider blocking the planned sale of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers to the Russian navy.

High Stakes, New Opportunities

The stakes for Beijing are incredibly high at a time when the United States is simultaneously pursuing a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with the EU and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in the Asia-Pacific—if both succeed, America would be at the geographic center of overlapping blocs accounting for 60% of world trade.

Beijing is likewise reluctant to express any public support for Russia’s conduct or for Crimea’s referendum on joining the Russian Federation, which contravene its long-standing positions against the use of force and in favor of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states—something closely connected to its own restive ethnic minorities. China’s official statements on Ukraine and Crimea have been cautious.

But 1914 makes painfully clear that governments can make public pronouncements that differ starkly from their private communications—secret treaties and quiet understandings were a major factor in the multiple miscalculations that produced World War I. It is consequently quite risky to assume that President Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese leaders are delivering the same message to President Vladimir Putin and others in Moscow in their personal phone conversations that they are transmitting in bland Foreign Ministry statements. From China’s perspective, Russia’s success in Crimea could deal a major blow to US and European global leadership, providing new opportunities for Beijing to enhance its own role.

More cynically, Beijing might also calculate that a major rupture in Russia’s relations with the West would leave Moscow with few options other than considerably closer ties to China. If Russia were cut off from new Western investment, China’s would become critical. If European anxiety over Russian energy prompts EU governments to diversify and/or to develop domestic shale gas resources, market pressures may make Russia’s Gazprom more likely to offer price concessions to its Chinese partners than it has been so far—something that has limited Russia-China energy links. If Russia faces broader economic pressure, Moscow may likewise resume high-tech arms exports to China.

Implications for Japan

Tighter alignment between Beijing and Moscow could have significant foreign policy and security implications for Japan. In such an environment, Mr. Putin would be less motivated to seek improvements in Moscow’s relations with Tokyo, which would be both less necessary for Russia and a greater irritant in its closer contacts with China.

Most immediately, this could affect not only China’s military capabilities but also talks on the Northern Territories/Kuril Islands, energy cooperation, and other issues. It could have consequences in the Middle East as well, especially for Russia’s relations with Iran and Syria—each of which could be even more troubling with greater Russian help. The UN Security Council would return to Cold War gridlock.

Importantly, none of this would require China’s open and public support of Russia’s actions or positions. China could continue to present neutral public statements while offering private assurances to Russia’s leaders and signing new security and economic agreements. If Xi Jinping so desired, he could take this course without any changes in China’s broader foreign and security policy. Ominously, however, Xi and other Chinese leaders might instead wonder whether America can change its policy to pivot to Europe and Asia at the same time. Such thinking could stimulate tough new tests of US resolve.

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