By Paul Lim*
War has come to Europe in Ukraine. It is in the news everyday and opinions, debates, questions, the propaganda war in the media, social media rages. A midst this, a lesson for Europeans, especially young Europeans, is that peace is not always a given. That peace was assured through NATO and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War and in the post-Cold War was this belief war will never come again. The Coal and Steel Community, the EEC and European Union were the non-military mechanisms bringing former enemies together in peace and with the vision of a peaceful Europe. The military conscription of the Cold War era was the reminder that peace was not given but there were derogations to allow the possibility of the objector of the conscience. Military conscription was folded up in this vision of a never-again war in Europe. This Ukraine War has awaken people and governments.
Now, back to expenditure on arms to reach the objective of 2% of GDP when all this while there was a reluctance to arms procurement in the past, all part of this belief in a peaceful Europe. Wasn’t this the case of the Second World War too? Wasn’t this short-term thinking? Isn’t short-term thinking part of the European mind always pushed forward by crises of some kind in this context of democratic politics. Always reacting.
Turning to Asia, the only countries that has some kind of consistency in making sure that they had some level of arms procurement to have deterrence against its giant neighbor China and that other adversary North Korea were and are South Korea, Japan and Taiwan although it could be said that with China’s greater expenditures on arms procurement there is a tilting the balance of military power to its favour. The Ukrainian War must have got into the heads of these countries that big Russia is also their neighbor up north if their presence in Brussels for the NATO meetings is any proof. Some would say that they are under American pressure be it true but they are not puppets of the US or manipulated by her to decide on their own their stances on the Ukrainian War.
One could think that the Chinese people evacuated by the Chinese government from Ukraine will be in a position to tell another story of the war back in China against the Chinese propaganda in support of the Russian line. Doubt they could and probably warned not to speak of their experiences of war. Would this be a lesson to the Chinese especially nationalistic young for war over Taiwan as the Chinese mainland will not be immune from Taiwanese attacks. Will there be a realization that war benefits no one, no country? That it is time to give up nationalistic ideology, historical claims for peace. Unless China thinks it can afford to sacrifice millions of Chinese lives out of 1.5 billion people. It will be a Chinese killing Chinese war from the perspective of China. It is an easy way to reduce the population size and people are expendable.
Coming to S.E. Asia, there was clearly no common ASEAN position. Centrality vanished. ASEAN countries were forced to choose between Russia and the US and not US and China in this real instance. Their fleeing diplomats from Ukraine did not influence or sway their home governments to vote UN resolutions opposing Russia. There must also be in their minds this anti-imperialist US which also had and has its history of destruction in South East Asia and in the Middle East and the continuation of this anti-colonial European mindset in play. Singapore had a clear and prompt position for the first UN Assembly resolution but not the second. One could not expect clients of Russian arms like Malaysia to take a stand against Russia. Vietnam as a traditional ally of Russia could not be expected to take a stand against Russia. The focus was not on the sufferings, loss of lives and destruction of Ukraine determining stands taken. The human condition was not decisive and determining but international politics, dependencies and ideology.
The lesson to be drawn is that such a war could also happen in South East Asia. It happened with Vietnam with the French and the Americans. Could it happen over the South China Sea claims opposing big China towards the other smaller South East Asian claimants? An unwarranted, unplanned incident on the high seas could ignite a war. Should not greater encouragement be given to the COC negotiations but on what terms? Big China’s?? Especially if it forces ASEAN countries to choose China over the US. How will the divided ASEAN countries maintain the line of not being caught between China and the US? Will giving in to China’s demands in precipitation be the way to have that peace? What compromise can be reached without being caught to choose between 2 big powers? Will this Ukrainian War provide the push to settle the South China Sea issue (s)?
It has always been very clear in my mind of the importance of ASEAN in bringing together the countries of South East Asia to go beyond divisions, conflicting self-interests and it had succeeded until now peace in South East Asia. It will be sad to see war in the South China Sea with the entry of big China into the scene without forgetting big US which has been there since a long time and which the South East Asian countries have long depended for their security, said or unsaid.
The common trait that runs, thinking of Russia and Ukraine and the possible hotspots in Asia connected to big China, is this basal human conditioning of greed, this is mine, this must be part of us, this must be part of my sphere of influence which is also exhibited by the US and Europe even if denied. It seems that since humans became sedentary possession of territory has been the law/principle/norm of the day whether it is house garden or a landmass. The rationalization for this is history. In every case of a hotspot over territory, history has always been brought in for claims. My position is that history explains but it should not be the determinant, the source of a solution for a present day solution to a dispute. It is for the people, the population of the present day to decide what the solution is. Putin or anyone else can come up with the history of Russia and Ukraine but it is the Ukrainians of today who decide if they want to be part of Russia. The same applies to Taiwan. There is a history of Taiwan being a part of China which cannot be denied but it is for the Taiwanese of today to decide if they want to be part of China. It is not for China to lay claims to South East Asia islets, reefs ….. with history nor is it for the other claimants also to use history but that this whole area of islets and what else has to be decided by the Law of Sea but if they cannot be settled in this way then all these islets, bits, belong to no country and become parts of the world’s commons. Simple as that. We do not see need to dispute, to go to war to end peace. This is idealistic with the urge to possess and hence it is up to have the encourage, the political will to withdraw claims and let the South China Sea to be part of the world’s common.
Analysts, those who are against American imperialism and past European colonialism and neo-colonialism rightly so never also recognize this basal greed and possession when it comes to the other side of the divide i.e. Russia and China nor for that matter recognize the greed of the US and the European powers. Justice does not come into the picture. Without justice where can there be peace? The analysis is rather on the lines of hegemony, imperialism, balance of power, sphere of influence, Cold War and post-Cold war, history, black and white, evil and good, autocracy versus democracy, a polarization mentality, the “other” etc. Seldom it is pointed too this human condition of desire, greed, possessive spirit, selfishness which I think is at the core of everything which needs to be overcome, gone beyond, reformed, eradicated. Not to be accepted as natural when the dictum is that change is the only constant and hence what is considered as natural, human nature can change. Hence then the change of mentality to achieve peace not only in the world but in oneself.
I thought that a thought of the human condition has also to come into the picture because on the ground the sufferers of big power politics are ordinary people when war breaks out and the ensuing internal displaced persons or refugees.
*Paul Lim is a pensioned-off academic and out of academia but with this invasion of Ukraine puts on his thinking cap and concludes that humans are just selfish, possessive even if he/she preaches a system of values in hypocrisy and double standards when it comes to a brass-tacks situation.