The Ukraine war – lessons for Australia and the Asia/Pacific

May 5, 2023
Map puzzle Asia Pacific view.

We often look to history or contemporary events to help explain issues and to seek guidance. Thus Graham Allison went back millennia to explain America’s current drive to war with China in his Thucydides Trap. Recently Gregory Clark joined others in making the natural comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan. Analogies are admittedly fraught with danger – parallels are never exact, the present never fits easily into the past and superficially similar events may be essentially very different – but they can be fruitful.

A case in point is the Ukraine war – America’s proxy war against Russia – and the lessons this might hold for Australia and the region in respect of America’s struggle against China.

The origins and course of the war have two aspects – the local, which is specific to the Ukraine, and the geopolitical, which has parallels of great relevance. The creation of NATO and the ‘containment’ of China spring from the same imperial roots. The US expansion of NATO had the aim of producing a crisis that would remove Putin and instal a more compliant government in Moscow – Yeltsin#2 – and a fragmentation of the Russian Federation. The parallels here with US strategy towards China are obvious but there is also a more fundamental shared issue in play – how to deal with Eurasia

Eurasia is the huge continent that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific with two main island nations on the periphery – Britain and Japan. The northern segment is comprised of three main parts – China, Russia and the rest of Europe (here simply ‘Europe’). There is a direct line in American geostrategic thinking stretching back to the British geographer Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), who is considered the father of geopolitics and geostrategy and is best known for his Heartland concept:

Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland:

Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:

Who rules the World-Island commands the World.

Mackinder saw the land power of Russia, now transformed by railways, as invulnerable and his fear was that if combined with Germany with its greater access to the sea together, they would dominate the world, displacing British sea power. It follows from this that Germany, and by extension Europe, must be kept separate from Russia and the rest of Eurasia.

Mackinder’s most notable American successor was Zbigniew Brzezinski who saw NATO and EU expansion within an American-controlled Europe as the key to the subordination of Russia and the domination of Eurasia. Brzezinski’s current reincarnations are Victoria Nuland, architect of the 2014 Ukraine coup and Anthony Blinken, Secretary of State.

The Ukraine war is the predictable result of this geostrategic push to use Europe to destroy Russia but the ‘Weaponisation of Europe’ has another dimension. Europe must be decoupled from the rest of Eurasia not merely politically but also economically. This is exemplified by Germany being cut off from Russian energy, which had been a driver of its economic strength, both by diktat in the form of sanctions and by deed with the sabotage of the Nord Stream gas pipelines. Germany is facing a degree of deindustrialisation with energy intensive industries relocating to China and to the US. This haemorrhaging of Europe is advantageous to the US in that it removes competition, but it also weakens Europe’s role as a force multiplier. Ukraine is devastated, with worse to come and Europe faces a bleak future. America is not good at orderly withdrawal, as illustrated by the Afghanistan debacle, and it is unclear how Biden will extricate the US in order to concentrate on China. It may well be that Zelensky’s approach to Xi may push the matter out of his hands; peace in Ukraine brokered by China would be a devastating blow.

Turning to the Asia/Pacific we see the other side of the Eurasian challenge. Here Japan (with Korea) is the equivalent of Germany. Mackinder had a dire warning. Russia had little access to the sea but:

Were the Chinese, for instance, organised by the Japanese, to overthrow the Russian Empire and conquer its territory, they might constitute the yellow peril to the world’s freedom.

For the first half of the 20th century the US fought with Japan over the control of China but with Japan’s defeat the prime object became to separate it from the Eurasian mainland, hence the division of Korea to create a buffer. America’s imperial wars fostered high economic growth on the periphery – Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea – which became competitors as well as force multipliers in the struggle with the Soviet Union/ Russia and China. Just as sanctions against Russia have devastated Europe so also are sanctions against China – semi-conductors prominently – debilitating the Asian allies. It is unlikely that Australia will escape pressure to decouple from China despite the economic damage it will suffer.

The big difference with Europe is that if the US precipitates war against China it will not be a proxy one. There are three hotspots. The South China Sea, where America would be a direct combatant, the Korean peninsula, where the US has wartime control of the South Korean military and so is immediately involved. It seems that the game plan for Taiwan is an Air/Sea battle where Taiwan is a tethered goat, and the US with Japan the initial combatants, with South Korea, Australia perhaps Europe to follow. Any country which hosts US bases used in the war will be automatically included; Australia may be at a distance but, having ceded sovereignty, it is a front-line state.

The similarity with Europe is that all the Asia/Pacific allies will be pawns, bearing the brunt of the human, physical and economic costs, to be sacrificed if necessary. For Australia, which has greater freedom of action than Japan, South Korea or Taiwan, to ignore the lessons of Europe and willingly accept the fate of a pawn is the height of stupidity.

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