Zheng Yongnian on Asia's "Ukraine"
Who is shaping Asia's "Ukraine" and who will become the "Ukraine" of Asia?
A year has passed since the Russia-Ukraine conflict began, yet it is still not resolved. Today's piece is a translation of Professor 郑永年 Zheng Yongnian's article titled Who is shaping Asia's "Ukraine" and who will become the "Ukraine" of Asia?. Professor Zheng analyzed the lessons the Russia-Ukraine conflict brings to Asia and argues that the United States needs a “Ukraine” in Asia to formalize NATO in Asia and make its Asian allies more dependent on the United States.
Professor Zheng points out that Taiwan will not become the “Ukraine” in Asia and Japan is one of the options for the United States to achieve its goals. He also argues that most Asian countries are seeking an Asian way to get along with China. It is the wish of most Asian countries to achieve a virtuous circle between peace and development.
Your Ginger River knows that the article contains some views which not every subscriber will agree with, but he guesses exposure to some different Chinese views is at least partly what you look for.
In case you’ve missed it, Ginger River Review has published the translation of Professor Zheng's other article calling for reviving China’s economy through reform and opening-up on Feb. 5.
You may also find the piece on the first anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine conflict by Dr. Ding Xiaoxing, Director of the Institute of Eurasian Studies at China Institute of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), helpful. It is translated and published by Zichen Wang in his Pekingnology Substack, which is now part of the Center for China and Globalization (CCG)’s portfolio.
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"Who is shaping Asia's "Ukraine" and who will become the "Ukraine" of Asia?"
[Note: the "Guide" session and some parts of the first session of the article were omitted here, mainly about some background of Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's January visit to five countries in the Group of Seven (G7), which are France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.]
The United States is Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s final and most important stop in January. When U.S. President Biden met with Kishida at the White House, he emphasized that the U.S. will be fully and thoroughly committed to the U.S.-Japan alliance—and more importantly, committed to the promise of Japan’s defense. When Biden reiterated the United States' commitment to Japan's defense, he even said that he would "use its full range of capabilities, including nuclear weapons."
After Kishida met with Biden, he delivered a speech at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, bluntly stating that China is the core challenge facing Japan and the United States, emphasizing that "it is absolutely imperative for Japan, the United States, and Europe to stand united in managing our respective relationship with China."
Before concluding his visit to Washington, Kishida said at a press conference that he told the leaders of Western powers during his trip that East Asia may become the next Ukraine. "The situation in Ukraine may be what East Asia will face tomorrow." "Some people intend to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Coupled with the intensification of North Korea's nuclear and missile activities, the situation in Japan's surrounding areas is becoming increasingly serious."
Why the U.S. and Japan hype the concept of "Ukraine in Asia”
In recent years, people have become accustomed to such displays of Japanese diplomacy. In fact, since the World War II, following the United States has always been the only option for Japan's diplomatic policy, especially its policy towards China. This time the concept of the so-called “Ukraine in Asia” is not new. Because the United States has been vigorously hyping this concept. But for Japan, it probably has not been carefully considered what this concept means for Japan.
For the United States, just as it needs a European Ukraine, it also needs an Asian “Ukraine." After the start of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, U.S. President Joe Biden declared that this conflict helped realize “two unities,” namely the unity among European countries and the unity between Europe and the United States. Indeed, since the beginning of this conflict, Europe has become more and more "NATOized", and European countries have become more and more dependent on the United States. The relationship between the United States and Europe has gradually drifted away during the Trump era, but now it has finally achieved its wish.
Likewise, the United States needs a similar conflict in Asia. Such a conflict would likewise achieve two main goals. First, the formalization of NATO in Asia. The United States has formed multiple alliances in the Asia-Pacific region, including bilateral alliances with Japan and with the Republic of Korea, a trilateral alliance with the UK and Australia, the Indo-Pacific Strategy, and the Five Eyes Alliance. They are also developing rapidly. For example, the Indo-Pacific Strategy promulgated by the Biden administration in 2022 also includes countries such as Vietnam and Singapore. At the same time, the United States is also working to transform bilateral alliances into multilateral alliances. But no matter what the United States does, it will be difficult to formalize NATO in Asia without a conflict like the one between Russia Ukraine in Asia. Second, by shaping a Ukraine in Asia, the United States has achieved unity with its Asian allies, making its Asian allies more dependent on the United States.
If Japan's behavior is placed in this context, it is not difficult to understand the logic of its behavior. It can be said that in Asia, Japan has become the vanguard of shaping the “Ukraine” in Asia. Japan's attitude is especially obvious on the Taiwan question. Despite being defeated in the World War II, Japan has never given up the mentality of former colonists, and regards the Taiwan question as its own problem. However, apart from Japan, no other Asian country wants a "Ukraine" in Asia.
However, Japan has forgotten to think about a more important and deeper question, that is, who will become the “Ukraine” of Asia? Japan points to China, so in its thinking, one of those countries that have disputes with China may become the Ukraine in Asia. The most obvious ones are Vietnam and the Philippines, because these two countries have disputes with China over the South China Sea, and some problems have arisen from time to time over the years. But the problem is that these two countries did not actively want to become the “Ukraine” of Asia. China is not Russia, and will not resolve disputes with neighboring countries in the Russian way. Whether it is China and Vietnam, or China and the Philippines, the bilateral relations between the two countries have not stopped due to some maritime disputes. On the issue over South China Sea, the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea has been in the consultation process. Not to mention on the economic front, the economic and trade relations between China, Vietnam and China and the Philippines have been developing and deepening.
Will Taiwan become the “Ukraine” of Asia?
In fact, most Asian countries are striving to get along with China in an Asian way. The Indonesian foreign minister has made it clear at the 2022 Shangri-La Dialogue that Asian countries should get along with China in the Asian way, not in the American way. This is in line with China's ongoing efforts to realize peaceful coexistence and promote common development with Asian countries.
The majority of Asian countries, including China, are on the rise. They have to adapt to each other and find a new way to get along, and the efforts of all parties in this regard have contributed to peace in Asia over the past few decades, during which period Asia has been the fastest-growing and most peaceful region in the world.
In other words, Asian countries have realized a virtuous circle between peace and development. As a result, no Asian country would like to see a conflict in Asia, let alone a "Ukrainian" crisis.
So, will Taiwan become the “Ukraine” of Asia? This has been continuously hyped up by the United States, Europe and Japan since the Russia-Ukrainian conflict broke out. Some American politicians try to develop and enhance relations with Taiwan by various means on the grounds that Taiwan will become the “Ukraine” of Asia. Japan naturally colludes with the United States to stir up troubles on the Taiwan issue. The actions of the United States and Japan have made many people doubt whether their purpose is to protect Taiwan or to turn Taiwan into the “Ukraine” of Asia?
On this issue, the West has greatly underestimated China's capabilities. Some politicians, think tanks and research institutions in the United States have been hyping up the Taiwan issue, believing that China will use force to resolve the Taiwan question to realize national reunification in the near future. Some research institutions, in a serious manner, also made various guesses about who will lose, who will win, and how much will the losses and winnings be if the Chinese mainland attacks Taiwan. While such kind of thinking is understandable considering that the United States and the West often impose their own behavioral logic on China.
The Taiwan question indeed concerns China's sovereignty. Although the Chinese mainland has many core interests, Taiwan is arguably among the core of them. Therefore, the Chinese mainland will in no way allow Taiwan to be separated from China, and once this happens, the mainland will do whatever it takes to realize national reunification, including the use of force.
However, precisely because Taiwan is part of China, the Chinese mainland has no reason to allow Taiwan to become the “Ukraine” of Asia. For the Chinese mainland, Taiwan is of sovereignty question, not a jurisdiction question. As the mainland's military modernization accelerates and economic development continues, the possibility of a peaceful resolution to the Taiwan question is increasing, not diminishing.
Accordingly, the United States and Japan, having realized that the time is not on their side, are over-anxious to shape Taiwan into the “Ukraine” of Asia, which the mainland has the obvious capability and will to avoid.
In 2022, then Speaker of the United States House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan and created a big crisis across the Taiwan Strait. However, China has not only avoided direct conflict with the United States but also took this crisis as a chance to achieve its own goals on the Taiwan question.
Japan leads the charge following the United States in creating an "Asian NATO"
If countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines do not want to and will not become the “Ukraine” of Asia, and the Chinese mainland will not allow Taiwan to step into such a position, then who is most likely to become the “Ukraine” of Asia? The answer is actually countries like Japan that only care about their own so-called absolute security but ignore the security considerations of other countries.
It is not hard to understand Japan's longstanding sense of insecurity and frustration. It is a pity that Japan, the first country in Asia to achieve modernization since modern times and once Asia's most powerful country, took the wrong path to learn from Western imperialism and invade and practice colonialism and imperialism against Asian countries. The first time it became a powerful country, Japan was defeated by the world's anti-fascist forces.
After World War II, Japan achieved its second rise and became the largest economy in Asia. In the 1980s, some Japanese politicians tried to say no to the United States, but in the end, the country failed to do so. Under the pressure from the United States, Japan once again lost its status as a major country.
Today's Japan, hardly rising again due to factors such as the serious aging problem, is “quiet quitting”. It not only became a vassal of the United States but also leads the charge in the latter's work of creating an Asian "NATO" for the so-claimed security's sake.
Such acts of Japan also meet the needs of the United States. The United States has been losing its grip on its global supremacy as it has over-expanded its own "empire." Trump's acts such as retreating from the UN system and reducing support for the alliance, though not in the interests of the American elite class, are not unreasonable. While Biden hopes to gain support from his European and Japanese allies and make the allies bear the cost of maintaining its hegemony.
But the question is, will things go in line with the United States' plan? Will this make its allies secure? The answer is far from clear.
No Asian country wants to become the “Ukraine” of Asia
The Russia-Ukraine conflict has thrown Europe into a bind. John Mearsheimer, a professor at the University of Chicago, believed the conflict was a matter of survival for Russia, while the United States just regarded it as another game between other countries and paid no attention to who would win or lose. Indeed, it may not be important to the United States, but it is dragging Europe down. Once this happens, the United States will also lose its global hegemony.
Well-known French scholar Emmanuel Todd recently pointed out in an interview with Le Figaro that the United States is in a long-term recession and its influence in the world is gradually weakening. In this context, the United States has decided to exert greater influence over Europe and Japan, the "protectorates" it acquired after World War II. As a result, the collapse of the European economy means enormous risks for the United States and once its European ally economies become exhausted, the United States risks losing control of world finance.
For European countries, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has turned into an attrition, in which both sides compete for natural resources and industrial energy. No one expected the Russian economy to be able to withstand NATO's economic might. If the Russian economy resists the sanctions in long term and manages to bleed the European economy, then the United States' monetary control over the world will break down, followed by its capacity to finance the huge trade deficit dropping to nearly zero. Therefore, the conflict has become a matter of survival for the United States.
In addition, Todd also emphasized that the Western media's persistent claim that Russia is isolated does not accord with fact. As many as 75 percent of the countries do not follow Western rhetoric.
Todd's analysis is of great enlightening significance to Asian countries. Asian countries are clearly aware that the Russia-Ukraine conflict is in essence a complete proxy war, a war between the United States, other Western countries and Russia. As Mearsheimer said, for the United States, this is just a game. As it is Ukrainian, not American soldiers and people who are being sacrificed, the United States is happy to see the conflict going on. Why not drag Russia down by sacrificing the interests of the people of other countries?
Because of this, no Asian country wants to be the “Ukraine” of Asia. People can also believe that with the joint efforts of China and other Asian countries, Asia not only has the ability to avoid a "Ukraine" on the continent but also has the ability to achieve long-term peace and prosperity through continued cooperation.
The elites of many Asian countries have considered this point, but couldn’t the elites of Japan? Perhaps, citing a concept by Nixon, Japan's post-war preeminent generation has gone forever.