Hong Kong: Russian strongman Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine has thrown Russia’s previously warm relations with the Asian powers into question.
China, Pakistan, and India have refused to condemn Russia’s invasion outright. The three abstained from voting on United Nations Security Council and General Assembly resolutions demanding Moscow stop its attack on Ukraine immediately.
This refusal to condemn illuminates Russia’s upsized influence in Asia. No-strings-attached trade and arms sales allow Moscow to exploit regional fault lines and weak ties with the West.
European and US leaders have cast their response to the invasion as a battle to uphold democratic freedom. But the major powers of Asia see these lines blurred.
Xi and Putin have never seemed closer. In a 5,000-word statement at the Beijing Winter Olympics opening, the pair said China and Russia’s relationship has “no limits.”
The two countries racked up a record-breaking $146 billion bilateral trade last year in addition to joint training and large-scale joint military exercises. With a 4,000-kilometer (2,458-mile) border, China is Russia’s largest trade partner.
The rationale for the tightening ties is their mutual suspicions of Washington. Now their so-called lasting relationship is being tested.
So far, China has rejected condemning the Russian attack or calling it an “invasion.” It says it understands Moscow’s “legitimate security concerns.” China’s state media reports Guo Shuqing, chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, said China wouldn’t participate in sanctions. But Ukraine also has links to Beijing and counts China as its largest trading partner.
Ukraine entered Xi’s flagship Belt and Road infrastructure and development endeavor in 2017 when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called Ukraine China’s “bridge to Europe.”
The country is a major source of corn and barley for China. Last week, in his call to his Ukrainian counterpart, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China was “deeply grieved” by the war in Ukraine.
China will also be concerned its businesses could suffer from Western sanctions against Russia. China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank suspended all of its activities in Russia. Even before Russia overran Ukraine in war, this web of relationships was sometimes fraught.
With general condemnation against its actions, Russia is likely to be considered an outcast state in the West. And that could make its relationships with countries like China, Pakistan, and India even more important.
“During (Putin’s) first stint as President, he put a lot of focus on rekindling old Soviet ties with Asian allies,” said Hervé Lemahieu, director of research at the Australia-based think tank the Lowy Institute. “He does have ballast in Asia … and, as we’ve seen, he has more than just China and India to rely on.”
Both China and India maintain the friendship out of self-interest — but for very dissimilar reasons. China has a “clear interest” in making sure people like Putin stay in power, says SOAS’s Tsang. But Beijing’s backing is conditional.
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Other countries in Asia, US allies South Korea and Japan, have condemned Russia. Singapore too levied sanctions against Russia.
And while eight of the ten members voted in favor of the UN General Assembly resolution calling on Russia to immediately cease its use of force in Ukraine.
Laos and Vietnam abstained. As for democratic India, economic concerns may come first.
For most, the fundamental challenge is China’s rising power, China’s colossal force in Asia.