Alarm is now heard that if Russian attempts to undermine Ukrainian territorial integrity are successful it will feed Moscow’s appetite for more. The non-invasion invasion of Ukrainian territory by “little green men”, or “self-defense groups” as President Putin calls them, has been a masterful demonstration of Russian asymmetric warfare, electronic disinformation and “lawfare” techniques. By avoiding blatant aggression, Putin’s “judo tactics” use Europe’s rules-based interconnected international system against it, even as he circumvents Russia’s treaty commitments to Ukraine. But while the attention of the world is riveted on the Kremlin, what about other regional powers? Perhaps the real threat is not that a declining Russia’s actions will be unpunished, but that they will be emulated elsewhere by rising states who are also dissatisfied with their neighborhood’s geopolitical status quo.
If a great power conflict could be avoided, would another state emulate Russia’s Ukrainian behaviors in future? Could Russia’s tactics be exported beyond the region of Eastern Europe?
This is in fact quite straightforward to answer if we consider these three questions:
1. Are there territorially/security dissatisfied states in the world order today?
2. Are there territorially/security dissatisfied states in the world order with the capacity to carry out plausibly deniable operations of the type we have seen Russia use in Ukraine?
3. Would it be in the national interest of a state to use “judo tactics” to resolve its territorial disputes in the face of escalating economic and social penalties?
The answer to the first question is clearly “yes”. The world is littered with disputed boundaries; for example, like the former Soviet Republics in Eastern Europe, East Asia is a region with multiple contested borders. Like Eastern Europe it is an arena for several established or rising powers engaged in a diplomatic dance of competition and cooperation, namely China, the US and Japan. China is a competitor state of, if not a rival to, Japan and the US. Security in East Asia for many states is guaranteed by the US, as is the case in Eastern Europe. The economic interconnectedness of the region and the possession by several states of nuclear weapons, in some ways replicates the check on aggressive open war that we also find in Ukraine. The similarities between the two regions make East Asia an obvious place to seek an answer for questions two and three.
China clearly “ticks the box” for question two above. Most states inside East Asia and outside it reject China’s territorial assertions, especially in the East and South China Seas. Officially, regional hegemon America takes no position on them, but argues that they must be solved peacefully within international law. Unofficially, the Obama Administration, which declared a US pivot to Asia in 2012, did send Beijing some pretty unambiguous signals during the President’s recent trip there. The President’s itinerary took him to three Asian nations, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Japan. All are states with boundary issues with Beijing, and China’s territorial ambitions and growing regional clout figured in talks at every stop. Obama confirmed the US-Japanese defense pact covered Japan’s dispute over the Senkaku/Daioyu islands with China. He also signed a new defense agreement in Manila giving the US basing rights in the Philippines.
The real question is therefore the third one. Will Beijing feel, now or in the future, that it should follow the trail that Putin’s Russia has blazed? I would argue the answer is “not yet”; their strategic situations are currently too different. Putin is a leader of a declining power trying to reclaim part of a vanished legacy. The mood in Beijing is more confident that things will turn China’s way in the longer run. Interestingly, no sooner had President Obama, distracted by Russian moves in Ukraine, finished his tour of East Asia, then China openly (not covertly) asserted its own claims to regional authority. In the disputed South China Sea, Beijing moved to introduce an oil rig into territory it claims as its own. This is disputed by Vietnam, but the drilling continues as of writing; facts are being created on the seabed.
Vietnam’s maritime claims are identical to other south-east Asian states but it is not a US ally. Pilipino police recently also drew Chinese ire by arresting a boatload of Chinese fishermen they claimed were in Pilipino waters. But instead of starting a naval standoff China blamed the US for stirring tensions by encouraging local states to behave provocatively. The contrast is instructive. China does not yet feel it is in its national interest to openly defy America’s arrangements in Asia, yet it is confident enough to openly harass and intimidate its regional neighbors when it feels they threaten Chinese interests. Beijing still calculates it can get its way in its boundary disputes through a mixture of economic bribery, charm and bullying. But if it feels thwarted by the US, as it was during the 1995-6 Taiwan Straits Crisis, Beijing will undoubted start to look at taking a leaf out of Vladimir Putin’s book. Watch out for some occupied islets yet.