Global politics in dangerous territory
While Russia’s deep and transformational invasion of Ukraine on February 24 fundamentally reshaped and reinforced the controversial trends and contours of Asia’s geopolitics and geoeconomics, it did not define a new direction. in world politics. The international system had already crumbled over the past decade, underpinned by geostrategic rivalry and competition between the United States and China. Given deteriorating patterns and trends, the international environment is entering dangerous territory where what seemed unthinkable not so long ago may soon become entirely conceivable.
Prior to President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation”, international trust and working trust between states had visibly slipped, been gripped and shaken by the US-China confrontation, pitting Washington’s assertive Indo-Pacific strategy under the former and current Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden. against China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative under President Xi Jinping. The 2020-21 pandemic has exacerbated geostrategic tensions between the two superpowers as each has handled Covid-19 in its own way with distinct and mutually exclusive approaches and means, notably in the development and dissemination of vaccines.
By early this year, the United States had fully reopened its economy and reemerged, while China’s borders remained relatively closed with quarantine restrictions still in place. To the extent that China has not fully re-engaged abroad due to a lingering pandemic crisis at home, Covid-19 is significant because it has given the United States a temporary geostrategic advantage and window limited to outwit and take Beijing to task on major battlefields from the East China Sea and Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea and wider Southeast Asia. As China feels more insecure and defensive about Washington’s assertiveness, including US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei early last month, Beijing has lambasted by leading military exercises around Taiwan, accompanied by fiery rhetoric against the United States and its allies and partners.
Moreover, Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and China’s defensiveness in Asia in the face of its lingering pandemic slump have tightened the Moscow-Beijing axis. Global politics is unmistakably aligned and polarized between the United States and its allies in Asia, the European Union and NATO on the one hand and China, Russia and their like-minded partners on the other.
This escalating confrontation has profound ramifications for ASEAN, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, India, Australia and New Zealand, among other states in the region. Medium and small powers in the Indo-Pacific are increasingly under pressure to choose sides and manage superpower rivalry and competition for their own sovereignty and national interest. Yet there are deep divisions between these Indo-Pacific states.
Over the past decade, the South China Sea has been a divisive issue for Asean, with Cambodia and Laos siding with China while the Philippines and Vietnam have challenged Beijing’s militarized man-made islands. . The coup in Myanmar and the ensuing civil war from February 1, 2021 further polarized ASEAN as Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore called for the restoration of the democratic process while the rest of the Southeast Asian bloc remained on the sidelines. Russian aggression further weakened Asean’s cohesion and regional centrality as Laos and Vietnam refrained from condemning Moscow while the rest of the group took a tougher line. Even India, a member of the “Quad” countries which also includes Australia, Japan and the United States, has taken a softer stance towards Russia because New Delhi needs the energy resources and of Russian defense cooperation.
Although these geopolitical tensions are fueled by the US-China confrontation and Russia’s war in Ukraine, the geoeconomic competition from energy security and free trade agreements to natural resources and technological innovations is also pushing global politics towards greater of tension and conflict. As global prices rise and inflationary pressures mount in every country, the economic adversity felt across the board will only inflame geopolitical tensions.
What is different and dangerous now is that the new confrontation between the United States and China is direct and face-to-face, even if it has so far remained non-military and focused on trade and technology.
In fact, some strategic thinkers in Washington seem to think that if there is going to be a war with China, the sooner it takes place, the better chance the United States has of winning. Waiting too long will allow China to acquire military strength and capability that could prevent a US victory. Such dangerous thinking in the US capital goes hand in hand with growing Chinese nationalism at home.
Mitigation institutions and mechanisms, such as the bureaucratic system known as the UN, are ineffective. The collapse of multilateralism is further compounded by Covid conditions that decouple US-China economic entanglement and integrated supply chains.
All in all, the ongoing global mess driven by Russia’s revanchism, China’s belligerence, US assertiveness, the EU’s overriding concern for its continental affairs, the internal divisions of the ‘Asean and a wide fracture of interstate relations in Northeast Asia is ringing the alarm. Unless both sides of the New Cold War step back and step back from the edge of the abyss, the risks will increase that we will witness a global conflict that we hitherto thought impossible in our lifetime.
A PROFESSOR AT CHULALONGKORN UNIVERSITY
Professor and Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, he earned a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics with a dissertation award in 2002. Recognized for his excellence in writing of opinions by the Society of Publishers in Asia, his opinions and articles have been widely published by local and international media.