Ukraine conflict is a game changer for Asia


How does the war in Ukraine affect Asia? The Asia Scotland Institute recently sought to answer this question in discussion with General Sir Nick Carter. The most obvious answer to the question is in relation to “great power” relations, notably Russia, China, and the USA.

Some analysts have suggested that the Cold War never ended and the Ukraine war is part of this ongoing confrontation. Great power competition has continued as the Korean peninsula remains divided, China is communist and insists on reclaiming Taiwan, there is continued resistance to American power as well as the west’s professed ideals, and the potential for nuclear war remains. Hence the Ukraine war is simply a continuation of the Cold War, which increasingly has Asia at its centre.

The most obvious impact of the Ukraine war in Asia is on how threats from China are now perceived, and also how the Chinese government perceives its ability to exercise power and influence in Asia. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has clearly stated that “Taiwan for sure is not Ukraine.” Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying has said that “Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China’s territory. This is an indisputable historical and legal fact. The one-China principle is a universally recognized norm governing international relations. The Taiwan region’s peace hinges on the peaceful development of cross-Strait relations, rather than fawning on foreign forces for arms sales and military support. “Taiwan independence” only leads to a dead end. No one shall have any illusion or make any miscalculation on this issue.” As Vladimir Putin conflates Ukraine with greater Russia, so too does the CCP believe that Taiwan is part of greater China, based on the boundaries of the Qing Dynasty.

The Chinese government is resolute in making statements about ‘One China’, but the Ukraine war has cast further doubt on the ability of the Chinese military to stage a successful invasion of Taiwan. The government of the Republic of China Taiwan may see their chances differently after the Ukraine war. Taiwan analysts are considering how the island could best prepare for invasion by deploying defensive systems that are short-range, able to survive an initial bombardment from a larger adversary, and suitable for deployment close to home in defence of the island should it come under blockade or attack. Taiwan is likely to focus more on sea mines and anti-ship cruise missiles to counter amphibious forces, improved air defences, and stockpile large amounts of small and cheap asymmetric weapons such as coastal defence missiles, and drones. An invasion of Taiwan would still be devastating, as is the war in Ukraine.

The Chinese government may be learning military lessons from the Ukraine war but it is more likely that their strategy has not changed. Bonnie Glaser, Director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, recently commented that if Taiwan was to declare independence this would cross a red line for China and they would not hesitate to launch an attack even if they felt that they could not achieve success. China has a sophisticated toolbox of grey zone tactics that are below the threshold of an invasion which are intended to instil a psychological sense of despair in Taiwan that the USA cannot defend them and they should surrender. Glaser suggested there is a clear lesson from Ukraine for the Chinese military that if they invade Taiwan they should use overwhelming force, decapitate the leadership, and control the air.

The world is a changed place after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the cold war may never have ended and Asia is just as affected as is Europe by the geopolitical and economic impact.