Taiwanese were watching in terror as Russian troops marched into Ukrainian territory, fearing that if Russia could do it in Europe without any nations, not even the US or NATO, could prevent it from taking the action, then China, which has even deeper self-justified claim over Taiwan than Russia over Ukraine, would soon do similar act against them.
The phrase “Today Ukraine, Tomorrow Taiwan” then quickly become the buzz word to describe the fear among Taiwanese on possible China’s attacks against the island.
But Ukrainian people’s stubbornness and resolute resistance which quickly inspired the world to unite in condemning and giving endless sanctions to Russia, may now cause China to think twice in not only pursuing its ambition to integrate Taiwan into its territory but also in realizing its plans, if any, to expand its territorial claims over various areas in Asia, including in South China Sea and its nine-dash territorial vision which clashes against Indonesia’s territory of Natuna Islands.
Ukrainian people’s longer-than-expected holdout against heavy Russian attacks and subsequent unified world’s reactions against Putin’s invasion have provided Asia with a powerful deterrence against possible China’s territorial and imperialist ambition.
It’s unfortunate for Ukraine that such a deterrence was absent to check Vladimir Putin’s ambition prior to the attacks. Thinking that he could just come and swallow Ukraine with his vast military might in shortest possible time while believing that NATO and the US would have neither capacity nor willingness to send troops to help the Ukrainians, Vladimir Putin finally decided to invade his neighbor on February 24.
More than three weeks later, Russia still fails to capture Ukraine and silence Ukrainian people’s resistance. Ukrainians are surprisingly capable to defend their land with everything they have this long.
While Putin is right about the West’s reluctance to send troops, he could not be more wrong about capturing Ukraine in a short period of time.
Another key factor that Putin seemingly underestimated before his invasion was how unified the world in supporting the Ukraine and condemning him. Because he must have thought he had invested so much in making himself loved by people in many countries, he must have thought that the world will be at least divided. He may have sensed that many people, or at least those the Muslim World, will have one or two grudges against the West that they throw support for him.
But that was not the case. The aggression has enraged most of the countries in the world. The United Nations, for instance, overwhelmingly agreed to adopt a resolution condemning his invasion, with 141 countries voting in favor, 35 abstaining, and only five voting against, highlighting how small he has the support for his action. Those who supported him all came from five authoritarian nations: North Korea, Eritrea, Syria, Belarus and Russia itself. Even countries he considered his biggest allies, such as India, Iran and China, only abstained, rather rejecting the resolution.
We are fortunate that Indonesia supported the resolution even after confusing and vague statements from both President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo and Indonesian Foreign Ministry which failed to not only condemn Russia but even failed mention the words “invasion”, “aggression” and “Russia” in their statements.
Subsequently, many countries started to join concerted efforts to financially punish Russia, making it very hard for the country to do transactions with foreign entities, a condition that isolate it further from the world community, and will create panic and chaos inside Russia. The hope is that Russian people could turn against Putin as the condition become more and more unbearable. Such scenarios of failed war and economic difficulties becoming reasons for the fall of a authoritarian regimes have been played out so many times along the history – from Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and even Indonesia’s Soeharto, who fell from power because of people’s economic hardship.
Just like Ukraine’s encounter with Russia, whether we like it or not, Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, has no apparent deterrence against China’s potential invasion. We just don’t have the luxury to adopt the dictum “if you want peace prepare for war.”
Does Indonesian military can deter China if for instance it decides to asserts claims over Natuna island’s surrounding seas? Indonesian military is too small compared to China’s behemoth offensive might to have any deterrence effects. Is the presence of an inward-looking US in the region enough to prevent China from invading? Judging at how Putin’s perception on the US in Europe, as well as subsequent US response to the invasion, it is not.
Is relying on economic cooperation and good diplomatic relationships enough to make China think that invasion will cause more harms that goods? Possibly not. Is ASEAN any use? Absolutely not.
But what happened in the aftermath of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine changes many things.
Despite China’s growing confidence and status among many countries in the world, especially among developing countries it has heavily invested in, China will not want to end up becoming a pariah nation like Russia in the aftermath of territorial wars it invokes against Taiwan or in South China Sea. It will be devastating to China’s pride and their ambition for a global power if they are isolated and the whole world condemned them.
Furthermore, China’s leaders will also calculate possible domestic backlash in the form of growing question against the China Communist Party’s ability to govern and protect people if it can’t win the wars quickly and conclusively. If they already know the end results as the aftermath of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine has shown them, then why start a war? After all, Sun Tzu has warned them: “Those who will be victorious first seek to establish the conditions for their victory and then enter into battle, while those who will be defeated first seek battle and then fight for victory.”
With this newfound deterrence as soft it may be, people in Asia can still sleep at night without worrying about possible wars, at least, for the foreseeable future.