The annual Shangri-La Dialogue Asia-Pacific Security Conference has traditionally been the central meeting for those interested in national security issues for the Indo-Pacific region. So it was striking just how much of the discussion at this year’s conference was about the conflict happening thousands of miles away on another continent: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Numerous discussions at Shangri-La either by accident or by design ended up wandering into the territory of “what does the Ukraine conflict tell us about the potential for a conflict in our own backyard.” Sideline conversations similarly ended up in that territory. Ukrainian officials could be seen sprinkled throughout the crowd, working to shore up regional support.
Participants and delegates to the Singapore event who talked with Breaking Defense were largely in agreement that this European war has raised the level of anxiety about existing tensions in Asia, with three key focus areas.
The first is the uncomfortable reality, articulated in several public forums ahead of Shangri-La by former EUCOM Commander and retired US Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “is what failed deterrence looks like.”
One senior staff member from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), one of Singapore’s largest foreign policy think-tanks, echoed this to Breaking Defense by saying Ukraine has “shown decision makers in the region that the supposedly ‘unthinkable’ possibility of a major war in which at least one of the protagonists is a nuclear power is now very much a terrifying current-day reality.”
And that staff member was not alone in drawing a direct line to thinking about China and Taiwan. A second issue raised by multiple individuals is that unlike Europe there is no Asian defensive alliance analogous to NATO that could balance the security situation between collective groups of smaller nations and the PRC.
The Indo-Pacific is largely defined by its bilateral or trilateral relationships; ASEAN, which brings together a number of smaller countries in the region, is a purely political organization with no NATO-like “Article 5” component as part of its charter.
It is interesting to note that Japan seems to be working to increase its ties with the Atlantic alliance. In May, the UK and Japan signed a new agreement on strategic partnership and pledged “to deepen NATO-Japan cooperation” by having the alliance open a Liaison Office in Tokyo.
Japan is also now part of a joint program with the UK and Italy, the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP), to develop a new stealthy, 6th-generation platform that would eventually replace the Eurofighter.
During a panel session on the second day of the conference, the UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who is one of leading contenders to become the next General Secretary of the alliance, commented on the development and stated a liaison office in island nation’s capital “is in the interest of NATO” and “important for a number of issues.”
One of those benefits, said Wallace, “is to share the knowledge of the threat,” pointing towards Russia moving parts of its naval fleet into the Pacific. He also referred to the “High North,” shorthand for the territories of the Nordic countries (home to the two newest NATO-membership aspirants Sweden and Finland) and the recent moves by both Russia and the PRC to expand their presence in the Europe-to-Asia trade routes that run through this region.
Finally, a third concern raised by those who spoke to Breaking Defense was the growing relations between Russia and Indo-Pacific nations. Trade between Russia and India has increased more than 300 percent since Moscow’s invasion, including a ten-fold increase in the purchases of oil by New Delhi.
Russian oil represented only two percent of Indian petroleum imports in 2021 but are now over 20 percent. Indian defense specialists who spoke to Breaking Defense also point to the effort by Moscow to keep India dependent on spare parts and technical assistance for the many Russian weapons platforms in Indian inventory.
For its part, the PRC has continued to support Russia with semi-surreptitious transfers of materiel and other military-related items. In late 2022 Ukraine press outlets published flight track records for several Russian Antonov An-124 cargo lifters that had visited Zhengzhou, which is a key air freight hub between the PRC and Europe, nine times in seven days.
Most of the return flights to Russia were not capable of being tracked due to the aircraft transponders being switched off in violation of international aviation conventions.
As recently as April, the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called out Beijing for its support of Moscow in its invasion of and war on Ukraine, and labelled the Chinese actions as “a blatant violation” of its United Nations commitments.
More recently, it was revealed that the PRC was supplying components to Iran for use in the suicide strike drones being supplied to Russia in large numbers despite warnings from the US to cut off these shipments.
In April, an Iranian drone shot down by Ukrainian air defense units was found by researchers with Conflict Armament Research, a UK-based weapons design analysis group that tracks defense industry supply chains, to contain a voltage converter made in the PRC in mid-January. It was the first time a component manufactured in the same year had been found in the configuration of one of these drones.
Indonesia’s Mysterious Peace Plan
On the second day of the conference Indonesian defense minister Prabowo Subianto departed from the planned agenda of regional issues in Asia and announced a peace plan to bring a cessation to the hostilities in the Russia-Ukraine war. His proposal included a ceasefire and creation of a demilitarized zone by having both sides withdraw 15 kilometers from their current forward positions.
Prabowo then called for the newly-demilitarized zone to be monitored by a UN peacekeeping force, followed by a UN-sponsored referendum “to ascertain objectively the wishes of the majority of the inhabitants of the various disputed areas. I propose that the Shangri-La dialogue find a mode of … voluntary declaration urging both Ukraine and Russia to immediately start negotiations for peace,” he said.
The Indonesian defense chief stated the war has a global impact and “has affected the livelihoods of all the peoples of the world. The price of energy has gone up, the price of food has gone up. This has resulted in much suffering for many peoples of the world.”
The plan met with no enthusiasm and a healthy level of disdain by the Ukrainians in the audience. Some officials from Kyiv present criticized the Indonesian initiative for not condemning Moscow’s invasion and making no mention of the thousands of documented cases of Russian war crimes.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, dismissed the idea of holding referendums in the Russian-occupied areas, telling the media, “there are no disputed territories between Ukraine and the Russian Federation [within which] to hold referendums.”
“In the occupied territories, the Russian army commits war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Russia is now trying in every possible way to disrupt the Ukrainian counteroffensive,” Nikolenko stated.
But perhaps the strongest condemnation came later in the same day during a break-out session that included Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleksii Reznikov. He declared that Indonesia had not consulted or discussed any of the details of this plan with Ukraine before Probowo made it public that morning.
“This sounds like a Russian plan — not an Indonesian plan,” said Reznikov. “He did not discuss it with us. Also, we do not believe Russians in negotiations … Our position is the first step in any negotiations will take place when the Russians have left every piece of Ukraine territory, when they have left all areas – including Crimea, Donetsk, Lugansk. Then when the war is over, we will sit at the table with our partners. And we will discuss ‘peaceful coexistence’ along with the subjects of reparations and a war crimes tribunal.”
Subsequent reporting in the largest Singapore news outlet, The Straits Times, points to a Russian hand behind this Indonesian initiative and detailing the Asian archipelago nation’s long history of ties with Moscow, many of which are related to arms purchases.
Russia’s Rosoboronexport has been increasingly desperate in trying to hold on to its defense export customers in Indonesia, as Jakarta has been negotiating for purchases of both the US Boeing F-15EX and the French Rafale as replacements for their Sukhol Su-27 and Su-30-series models.
One of the PRC’s highest-ranking participants, former Vice Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, participated on the same panel with Reznikov. But his response was “predictably condescending,” said another attendee, a senior fellow at one of Singapore’s leading foreign policy think-tanks commented.
The PRC former diplomat somewhat undiplomatically refused categorically a suggestion that Beijing act as an intermediary that could talk to the Russians about the errors of their ways.
“We are not imposing our ideas on Russia, as if we are the older brother,” he responded. “This is not our tradition.”
Instead, he turned to his European colleagues and stated “I don’t think you are managing effectively and constructively your security situation. A better word for it will be ‘mismanaging’ it. You see the outcome: it’s hurting everybody.”
“We used to look to Europe for their experience in regional integration, but nowadays, people in Europe and the Atlantic, can look to us,” he continued. “We should also learn something, a very important something, from your lack of success. I don’t want to use the word ‘failure’, but lack of success.”
Ukraine has tried to maintain a working relationship when the PRC proposes itself as a peace mediator, but this may now be challenged by the position of Beijing regarding US fighter aircraft now approved for Kyiv’s air force.
“The US move to enable the supply of Western jets to Ukraine could intensify the conflict and render Beijing’s mediation efforts futile, casting a shadow over China’s image as a peace broker,” Singapore’s Channel New Asia (CNA), which is known for taking a pro-PRC stance on certain issues, commented in the week after Shangri-La Dialogue.
If the PRC continue to oppose the introduction of more advanced weapon by the US, it is likely to be a departure point for Ukraine looking to Beijing to play a constructive role in ending the conflict.