Precedent Matters: What Ukraine Tells Us About East Asia’s Disputes

Russia’s invasion of Crimea will set some important precedents – precedents that could affect East Asia.

Precedent Matters: What Ukraine Tells Us About East Asia’s Disputes
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

What precedent does the Russian invasion of Crimea set for the settlement of territorial disputes in East Asia?  We should begin with the major differences: East Asia lacks institutions similar to the European Union or NATO.  The situation of Russia, which continues to support multiple irredentist communities around its near abroad, has no easy parallel in Asia. East Asia enjoys its share of difficult, complex national relationships, but none of these are quite like those between Russia and its neighbors. We should also note that there’s a gulf between claiming that a particular act (say, the NATO led air campaign against Kosovo) caused some other event, and suggesting that the actions of a major power establish “rules of the road” that other states tend to follow.

But precedent isn’t so much “what happened” as it is “what are the stories we tell about what happened.” Objectively different situations can produce coherent narratives that provide lessons for how states ought to behave. And so if we think of “precedent” as one element in a universe of social understandings about how states can act and how they ought to act, the Russian invasion undoubtedly represents a data point on the way in which international society functions.  The question then becomes, “what does Russia’s behavior say about international society?”

Unsurprisingly, a very broad precedent that major powers can police their near abroad at will would have stark implications for China’s neighbors. If, on the other hand, the more narrow precedent set is that great powers have certain rights within their spheres of interest to protect ethnic enclaves, then the invasion of Crimea does not directly affect the ongoing territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. As Chinese expeditionary and amphibious capability grows, however, such an understanding of international norms could threaten states with substantial overseas Chinese ethnic populations.

This more narrow precedent could also have dangerous implications for Russia’s future relationship with China. Commentators have surely overblown the threat that China poses to the Russian Far East.  Nevertheless, even if Russia isn’t doomed, it must have some long term concern regarding Chinese attitudes towards the large expatriate population in the Far East. A situation in which superior Chinese forces intervened on Russian territory in order to establish “facts on the ground” with respect to Chinese property and the autonomy of the Chinese population may seem far fetched at the moment, but is hardly inconceivable.

Finally, it’s possible that the precedent developed here may be that outlaw nations exist (even outlaw great powers), and that even if these nations aren’t immediately punished, they will struggle to achieve long-term gains for their aggression. International events take some time to play out, and so we don’t yet have the full picture of how history will evaluate this invasion.  However, I doubt very much that it’s profitable to think in terms of a dichotomy between a “realist” world in which norms and precedents don’t matter, and a “liberal” world in which they do.  Precedent matters in both cases; the biggest question is what sort of world the rules create.