Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed the world as we know it. Russian President Vladimir Putin sending one of the world’s strongest military forces to brutally invade a much smaller, sovereign nation is akin to declaring war on the liberal world order. It’s now Putin vs. democracy and therefore, the war’s impacts go well beyond Eastern Europe.
Amid the fog of war, there are still a lot of unknowns, but one thing that is certain is that Putin has unified Europe in way not previously seen. The European Union and NATO have condemned Putin and imposed a suite of devastating economic sanctions. Ongoing military and economic aid to Ukraine is resolute.
After years of the U.S. lobbying Europe to increase defense spending, Putin’s invasion achieved this almost overnight. Most notably, Germany announced $110 million to immediately boost the strength of the country’s armed forces.
“It is clear that we must invest significantly more in the security of our country, in order to protect our freedom and democracy” to ensure that Putin “does not turn the clocks back,” said German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Furthermore, the alliance is growing. Previously neutral European states such as Switzerland and Sweden have tacitly joined the ranks, adding sanctions on Russia and sending arms to Ukraine, while Kosovo, Georgia, Finland, Sweden, Moldova, and, of course, Ukraine have since Russia’s invasion either requested to join NATO or the EU or are more seriously considering doing so.
Naturally, a unified Europe has thus emerged as a global superpower and with this we should expect a more comprehensive and truly global foreign policy. Nations across the Asia-Pacific will be particularly keen to see if Europe will take a bolder stance against China’s efforts to undermine democracy across their region.
China is even bullying Lithuania, a member of the EU, and Brussels has so far struggled to find an appropriate response. But Europe having now showed that its willing to take the economic hit of decoupling from a rouge actor and back vulnerable democracies should serve as a warning to China.
The pendulum has already begun to shift. The German foreign ministry last month circulated a paper to other government departments urging them to regard China as a “systemic rival.”
France, which has overseas territories in the Pacific and booming defense ties with India and Indonesia, has also committed to expanding its footprint in the region.
Admittedly, much of the concern around China’s actions in the Pacific appears to be overhyped, but with China’s main methods of interference abroad consisting of undermining democratic institutions, creating economic dependence, and stifling criticism of Beijing, Pacific Island nations are extremely vulnerable.
According to the 2021 State of Democracy report, the three Pacific Island nations assessed — Fiji, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands — are all ranked as “weak democracies.” According to the global corruption watchdog Transparency International, more than half of all Pacific Islanders believe corruption is a significant problem in their government. For the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, this jumps to 97 and 96 percent respectively.
With money dangling over their heads, both Kiribati and the Solomon Islands switched diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to China in 2019. The economic impact of COVID-19 has devastated Pacific Island nations, which has seen them turn to China for financial support.
Both Fiji and the Cook Islands received loans from China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2020, after being knocked back from traditional Western partners. Vanuatu went straight to the Chinese government for financial support in 2021.
In 2019 six Chinese nationals, some with Vanuatuan passports, were marched onto a chartered jet by plain clothes Chinese police in Vanuatu’s capital Port Vila and deported back to China. It later emerged that none of the six had been charged with a crime in Vanuatu, which led critics to claim democratic rights in the country had been eroded at Beijing’s request.
Vanuatu subsequently barred the media director of the Daily Post newspaper, which first reported the story, from returning to Vanuatu after a trip to Australia, accusing him of negatively reporting the country’s ties with China.
Chinese loans to Vanuatu account for about half of the country’s external debt of $290 million, or about 13 percent of its annual GDP.
Australia would certainly welcome European support in its own standoff against China, which has dragged on for more than years and began with Canberra airing its concerns about China’s meddling in its affairs. As recently as last month Australia’s spy chief said they had foiled a plot by an overseas government to plant candidates into the Australian government. An Australian senator later used parliamentary privilege to link China to the case.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Thursday: “A wide-ranging discussion with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz tonight on standing firm with Ukraine, including through sanctions and Australia’s military and humanitarian support, and our common interests in the Indo-Pacific.”
In addition to undermining democracy, China has become more aggressive too. From crushing the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests to threatening Taiwan, China has shown its willing to use force to get what it wants.
Europe, as it emerges as a global democratic power, would be wise to remember it was the Pacific Island nations that were among the first out the gate to condemn Putin for invading Ukraine.
“As Secretary of the Pacific Islands Forum nations, I condemn the disturbing display of the Russian Federation’s military aggression against the innocent people and independent state of Ukraine. We have observed from afar the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as Russia’s blatant disregard for international law,” said Secretary General Henry Puna.
Pacific Island nations have much to lose in a breakdown of multilateralism, or the weakening of global institutions such as the United Nations or the disregard of the rule of law. It is after all global diplomacy that enabled Pacific Island nations to have their say on the international stage in the first place.
Europe also needs to accept that the world is increasingly dependent on Asia. Asia is home to 50 percent of the world’s population, so therefore the largest armies and workforces. It’s already home to 39 percent of the world’s GDP and is on track to top 50 percent by 2040 and drive 40 percent of the world’s consumption.
The region is home to some of the fastest growing economies and over the last decade has accounted for 52 percent of global growth in tech-company revenues, 43 percent of start-up funding, 51 percent of spending on research and development, and 87 percent of patents filed, according to McKinsey Global Institute.
Simply put, the future is Asian, and Europe would be wise to ensure it protects Asian democracies from an increasingly assertive China in the meantime. As Europe seeks to reconfirm the liberal world order, it should work more closely with its Asia-Pacific partners to guarantee security in the region and build an even broader coalition of countries willing to defend democracy.