No, Crimea Is Not a “Model” for Aggression in Asia
Image Credit: REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov

No, Crimea Is Not a “Model” for Aggression in Asia


Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea, there has been a lot of panicked talk: annexation is redefining international relations, violating established international law, and throwing the post-WWII/post-Cold War order in Europe into chaos. Putin has been analogized to Hitler by no less than Hillary Clinton, and both Zbigniew Brzezinski and Madeleine Albright were quick to bring up the specter of the 1938 Munich conference. There has been a steady drum-beat from U.S. conservatives that Obama is weak, appeasing, and lacks resolve.

Some of this is true. Certainly ethnic irredentism smacks of Hitler’s ploy at Munich, but the implication of the “Munich analogy” is that this is but a first step, unseen by weak, appeasing Western statesmen, toward future invasions. This is almost certainly not true for Putin. The U.S. and NATO are vastly more powerful than Russia, and without the rest of the old Soviet empire, there is no possible way Putin could launch a second Cold War against an expanded NATO. Putin’s thuggery is more a local challenge to the European order and the European Union, a desperation move from panic and paranoia. We should not lose perspective.

So out of hand did this hawkish exaggeration of Crimea become, that a backlash set-in. Micha Zenko noted the obvious hypocrisy of U.S. officials suddenly praising international rules and sovereign non-interference. Fred Kaplan pointed out that NATO does in fact retain the ability to defend itself. And Fareed Zakaria usefully reminded everyone that the “Long Peace” and gradual decline in war violence are in fact real secular trends not debunked by one event.

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This essay is a part of this response literature, but focused on Asia, where there has been a flurry of similarly exaggerated suggestion that Crimea could be a model of local aggression (here, here, and here – or here for the most egregious on U.S. President Barack Obama’s “capitulation” in Asia). Unsurprisingly, much of this focuses on China, moving to take either the Senkaku/Diayou Islands or a strip of northern North Korea (the latter has been kicked around in the South Korean press). But much of this is hyperbole, some of it rather irresponsible. And a lot of it feels like U.S. neoconservatives and defense hawks using Crimea as a political cudgel against a president they dislike and defense budget cuts they detest. Crimeas are apparently like Pleiku streetcars – wait long enough and you can always circle back to preferred arguments.

But it is far too early and the Crimean situation probably too unique for these conjectures. By way of illustration, consider this “what Crimea means for Asia” piece by my friend Brad Glosserman of the influential Center for Strategic and International Studies. Brad argues:

1. Putin took Crimea, ergo realism is the “coin of realm in foreign policy” and liberal theories on the decline of war are wrong. This is too simple. Crimea is one event; it has resulted in few casualties; it seems likely, in spite of the rigged poll, that a majority of Crimeans would in fact prefer to be part of Russia; it is not at all clear that Russia’s army could sustain a serious occupation of even eastern Ukraine; a full-scale invasion would galvanize NATO overnight, and so on. By contrast, liberal theories of international politics continue to explain a lot – most obviously the very large democratic security community that reaches from eastern Europe all the way west and south to parts of east Asia and Australia. One event does not buck this well-documented trend.

2. “National identity matters” in Asia. But few Asianists said it didn’t. It is well-known that Asian regionalism has broadly failed; that Asian elites and populations are statist and nationalist; that Asia is not going to integrate along EU lines, and so on. Realism does indeed have reasonable analytical purchase in Asia, but that does not mean realism can explain the above mentioned security community very well, or that east Asian statism means conflict. East Asia has been at peace since 1979, but realists and hawks have been predicting war there since the end of the Cold War. The Asian peace may be a “cold peace” but it has proven surprisingly durable nonetheless. These inaccurate predictions should be admitted by those who want to ramp up the pivot and expect a major Sino-U.S. competition.

3. China abstained on the UN Security Council Crimea vote; it is balancing the West with Russia. This is also too fast and a little slippery. China’s behavior on Senkaku is not as aggressive as the conventional wisdom suggests. China is extraordinarily dependent on Western export markets. There is little undisputed evidence that China and Russia are meaningfully working together. China probably abstained at the UN for the same reason everyone else is keeping their powder dry on Crimea: no one really knows what Putin is up to; no one knows how far he intends to push. Crimea was a big surprise to everyone, including the hawks who are now claiming it is the natural outcome of Obama’s weakness.

4. Crimea could be a template for conflict in Asia, because it too has territorial disputes. This massages the regional differences too much. First, to even call Crimea a “model” of conflict is to accord it far too much significance too soon. (To be fair, Brad does not actually use that term, but much of the Crimea-Asia writing in the last two months pushes in this direction.) Second, Asia’s territorial problems are not the irredentism that underlay both the Munich and Crimean annexations. I know of no Chinese irredentist claims in East Asia; no one in China speaks of “liberating” ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, for example. (Taiwan might be considered Chinese irredentism if one really stretches the category, but that has long been a well-known issue.) Curiously, the only serious irredentist possibility in East Asia I can think of is Korean claims on northeast China. Korean history books teach that early Korean kingdoms stretched far north of the Yalu, and China and Korea have fallen into historiographic spats on this. But I know of no serious Korean politicians demanding Chinese territorial concessions there.

5. The move into Crimea means the U.S. should redouble the Asian pivot. In fact, it likely says the opposite: the U.S. might be looking at a sustained stand-off with the Russians that will pull U.S. resources into Eastern Europe. Much of the security writing on East Asia assumes that the U.S. is a source of stability and that Chinese power is a rising threat. This may indeed turn out to be the case, but it is also true that Asia has not had a major inter-state conflict since 1979 (China’s brief invasion of Vietnam). An alternative literature notes that Asian military expenditures are not nearly as high as U.S. hawks would have you think and that Asia is much more stable than we realize. It may be that Asia under a bland, developmentalist Chinese oligarchy is more stable than Eastern Europe menaced by a clownish, paranoid, prestige-seeking Putin. Again, we should not judge so rapidly. In particular, we must be careful not cast China too quickly in the role of the regional villain like Germany 1914 or the Soviet Union 1945. That is not clear yet.

The realist-hawk-neocon take on East Asia may indeed turn out to be right (this is probably the best statement of that case). But it is far too early to jump to large conclusions on Crimea’s “demonstration effect” in Asia. China has a very long and well-known record of defending sovereignty. It is likely that the Chinese are upset with Putin’s open violation of this principle. They likely abstained on the Crimea vote to avoid giving the West a “win,” but it would be an extraordinary volte-face in Chinese foreign policy if Beijing were to suddenly endorse the rewrite of borders by force. Nor are the Senkaku/Diaoyu or South China Sea disputes strong counter-evidence. Both are nearly empty maritime spaces. China’s claims on them are indeed dubious and should be resisted, but they are far less threatening than Crimea, which was the annexation of a developed, populated land-space. Again, Asia’s cold peace, while cold, may be more stable than we usually think.

So if Crimea encourages U.S. allies in Asia to take their own defense a little more seriously, then so much the better. But there is little evidence to date that China (or anyone else in Asia) has picked up a “Crimea model.” Conversely, there is a lot of evidence that U.S. hawks and neoconservatives deeply dislike Obama, remain strongly committed to U.S. hegemony, and will use events to support that. Let’s go a little more slowly…

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