Ukraine war is creating new fault lines in Asia as Singapore, South Korea and India shift positions

April 15, 2022 GMT

“I envisage a strategy whereby Australia, India, Japan, and the US ... form a diamond to safeguard the maritime commons stretching from the Indian Ocean region to the western Pacific,” declared then Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe in an oft-cited essay upon his return to power in the early-2010s.

Specifically, the Japanese leader called on the four like-minded powers to ensure China doesn’t become the dominant maritime power in adjacent waters. As Abe bluntly put it, his proposed “security diamond” should jointly prevent vital sea-lanes of communications such as the South China Sea from turning into “Lake Beijing”.

To this end, Abe played a critical role in mainstreaming the “Indo-Pacific” geopolitical paradigm, which placed India at the heart of an emerging alliance against a resurgent China. Abe’s proteges at home as well as the Trump and Biden administrations in Washington have largely embraced Abe’s strategic vision in recent years.

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Over the past decade, shared concerns over a resurgent China have facilitated the crystallisation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, better known as the Quad, which some critics have described as an “Asian Nato”. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, has threatened to tear the Quad asunder. Instead of standing with the West and Japan, India has doubled down on its historically robust strategic relations with Russia.

Meanwhile, South Korea and Singapore, two regional players famed for their balanced relations with competing superpowers, are closing ranks with Washington. Both nations have imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia, while welcoming expanded defence and strategic cooperation with the West.

To be fair, divisions within even the most intimate alliances are a staple of international relations. This is especially true in the case of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), which has faced an existential crisis in recent years. No less than former US president Donald Trump questioned the value of the alliance, while threatening to withdraw US support from its Western European allies.

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Trump repeatedly pressured Europe to step up its own defence spending as part of a more equitable burden-sharing architecture within Nato. A long-standing area of disagreement between Washington and Brussels, however, was Europe’s large-scale energy imports from and cosy investment relations with Russia.

Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, however, the transatlantic allies have largely closed ranks, jointly imposing a barrage of sanctions and even scaling back energy imports from Russia. They have also tried to jointly pressure Beijing against supporting Moscow amid the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Having successfully built a united front in Europe against Russia, the Biden administration likely envisaged a similar outcome in Asia. As a fellow democracy, India seemed like a natural ally in the West’s new cold war against an aggressive authoritarian superpower.

To the consternation of Washington, however, India has moved in the completely opposite direction. Not only has it refused to categorically condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, having abstained from multiple United Nations resolutions on the conflict, but it has even welcomed expanded trade, defence and energy ties with Moscow.

The US Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has described India’s recent actions as “deeply disappointing”, while the US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin warned India against “investing in Russian (military) equipment”.

Influential US Congressman Joe Wilson, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, was even more emphatic in his criticism of India, lamenting how “gruesomely, our treasured ally India, the world’s largest democracy, is choosing to align itself with the Kremlin”.

Just as Delhi prepared to host Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the White House dispatched Deputy National Security Adviser Daleep Singh, the chief architect of the latest anti-Moscow sanctions, to warn India against helping Russia in any effort to “circumvent our financial sanctions”.

So far, India has not only stood by its “non-aligned” approach towards Russia, but has also been increasingly incensed by what it perceives as undue Western pressure. Should it press ahead with large-scale trade and defence deals with Moscow, however, Delhi risks incurring Western sanctions, thus potentially jeopardising the burgeoning Quad alliance in the Indo-Pacific.

In stark contrast, Singapore, another historically “non-aligned” nation, has rapidly emerged as the West’s most reliable partner in Southeast Asia. Not only did it co-sponsor a United Nations General Assembly resolution against Russia, but it also became the only regional state to impose sanctions on Moscow.

Although not a treaty ally, Singapore has been integral to America’s ability to project power in the Indo-Pacific by, inter alia, regularly hosting US warships and facilitating Washington’s regional economic initiatives. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently embarked on a week-long working trip to Washington, where he met US officials to discuss anti-Russia sanctions as well as expanded strategic and defence cooperation.

Amid blossoming bilateral relations, especially amid the ongoing crisis in Europe, US President Joe Biden has personally praised the Southeast Asian city state for its “principled leadership in supporting the people of Ukraine”. On its part, South Korea, which also joined in Western sanctions against Russia, has also signalled its intent to double down on its defence alliance with Washington.

Although a US treaty ally, the Asian dynamo has historically maintained robust economic and strategic ties with the Eastern powers of China, a top trading partner, and Russia, a key source of space technology and hydrocarbon products. But South Korea’s incoming president Yoon Suk-yeol is poised to revisit his country’s equidistant foreign policy towards competing superpowers.

He is intent on stepping up his country’s geopolitical role in the Indo-Pacific, including through closer cooperation with Quad powers. Moreover, he is also committed to expanding military cooperation with Washington ” even welcoming US nuclear bombers, submarines and missile defence systems.

While angering Russia, Singapore’s and Seoul’s steady lurch towards Washington will certainly not go down well in Beijing. Overall, a seemingly faraway conflict in Eastern Europe has created new geopolitical fault lines in Asia with long-term consequences for the future of the regional security architecture.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” and the forthcoming “Duterte’s Rise”

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. For more SCMP stories, please download our mobile app, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

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