By avoiding blatant aggression, Putin’s ostensibly deniable tactics use Europe’s rules-based interconnected international system against it, even as he circumvents Russia’s own treaty commitments to Ukraine. But perhaps the longer term threat is not that a declining Russia’s actions will go unpunished, but that as with Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1930s, states who are also dissatisfied with their neighborhood’s geopolitical status quo will copy the Kremlin’s lead.
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. Alarm is now heard that if Russian attempts to undermine Ukrainian territorial integrity are successful it will feed Moscow’s appetite for more. But while the attention of the world is riveted on the Kremlin, what about other regional powers? If a great power conflict can be avoided (as in Ukraine so far), would another state emulate Russia’s behavior in the future?
This is in fact quite straightforward to answer if we consider three simple questions:
- Are there insecure or territorially dissatisfied states in comparable regions of the world today?
- If so, do these states have the capacity to carry out plausibly deniable operations of the type we have seen Russia use in Ukraine?
- Would it be in the national interest of such a state to use ostensibly deniable techniques 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; East Asia, for example offers many points for comparison with Eastern Europe. Multiple East Asian states have security ties with the US, albeit to a lesser extent than many Eastern European ones. Similarly, it is also an arena in which several established or rising great powers engage in a diplomatic dance of competition and cooperation, namely China, the US and Japan. China is a competitor state of, if not strictly a rival to, Japan and the US. The economic interconnectedness of the region and the possession by several states of nuclear weapons in some ways replicates the reluctance to escalate in crises that we also find in the Ukraine crisis. The similarities between the two regions make East Asia an obvious place to seek an answer for questions two and three.
In my opinion China clearly “ticks the box” for question two above. China makes territorial claims, especially in the East and South China Seas, which most states both within East Asia and outside it reject. 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 2011, 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 disputes 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/ Diaoyu islands with China. He also signed a new defense agreement in Manila giving the US better 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 has led to riots in Vietnam, but the drilling continues as of writing; facts are being created on the seabed.
Vietnam’s maritime claims are identical to other South-Eastern Asian states but it is not a US ally. Filipino police recently also drew Chinese ire by arresting a boatload of Chinese fishermen they claimed were in Filipino 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 East 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 frustrated by the US in the longer term, as it was during the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits Crisis, Beijing will undoubted start to look at taking a leaf out of Vladimir Putin’s book.
Neil Thompson is a freelance writer and member of Atlantic Community’s editorial team. He has lived and travelled extensively through East Asia and the Middle East. He holds an MA in the International Relations of East Asia from Durham University, and is now based in Berlin.