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SINGAPORE — Almost since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, analysts in the West wrung their hands about a perceived lack of support for Kyiv from the global South. The explosion of open war in Europe galvanized the transatlantic alliance and ushered in a major shift in strategic thinking on the continent. But it also exposed gaps in the priorities and concerns of governments elsewhere, many of which hoped to see an immediate end to a war that had destabilized the global economy and critical food supply chains — even if it meant Ukraine making concessions to Russian aggression.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue, a leading Asian security forum hosted in this Southeast Asian city-state that concluded over the weekend, that dissonance was palpable. Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto took the dais during a Saturday plenary and put forward a peace plan to draw an end to the war in Ukraine — somewhat to the surprise of even some members of the Indonesian contingent in attendance.
Prabowo, who is gearing up for a presidential run in 2024, proposed a settlement that would usher in an immediate cessation of hostilities, compel both Russia and Ukraine to withdraw 15 kilometers from their current positions to create a demilitarized buffer zone, and lead to the staging of U.N.-backed referendums in disputed territories. He said his country would be prepared to dispatch military observers to Ukraine to help oversee such an effort.
“Let us not put blame on any side,” Prabowo said. “There are always two versions to any conflict. Both sides feel strongly of their righteousness.”
The proposal triggered a swift backlash. Josep Borrell, the E.U.’s top diplomat, sat on stage alongside the Indonesian defense minister and rejected what he described as a “peace of the cemeteries, a peace of surrender” and argued that Russian aggression ought not be rewarded by further territorial concessions. Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament, suggested the offer for Indonesian intervention was a “policy stunt” intended for a domestic audience. In Singapore, Bütikofer told me, Prabowo “made a fool of himself.”
U.S. and China lock horns at Asia’s top security forum
Then came Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, who at another session later in the day scoffed at Prabowo’s suggestion, describing it as “a Russian plan.” He said there was already a long “queue” of voted at the U.N. General Assembly to condemn the Russian invasion and that he was simply, in good faith, trying to find a way “to resolve this conflict.”
But Prabowo communicated an impatience with Western moralizing over the war in Ukraine that is keenly felt in some corners in Asia and Africa, subject to a history of Western meddling and exploitation. “There are violations of sovereignty not only in Europe. Ask our brothers in the Middle East, ask the Africans … how many countries have invaded them?” Prabowo said. “Please understand we have been victims of aggression many times.”
Sitting next to Reznikov, Cui Tiankai, a retired Chinese diplomat who recently served a lengthy stint as Beijing’s ambassador in Washington, seemed to exult in the tension. “I appreciate very much efforts from our friends in the region, like Indonesia and South Africa,” said Cui, who also highlighted China’s own halting efforts to broker a truce. “With all due respect to our Euro-Atlantic friends: I don’t think you are managing effectively your own security situation. Maybe mismanaging is a better word.”
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The considerable crowd of Westerners attending the Shangri-La Dialogue seemed sensitive to this perspective. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas spoke Sunday about Ukraine’s fight as a struggle of anti-imperial resistance, rhetoric some Europeans hope resonates with audiences elsewhere. “Russia is testing us all to see whether it can get away with conquering and colonizing an independent country in the 21st century,” said Kallas, who later inaugurated her small Baltic nation’s new embassy in Singapore.
German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said the war in Ukraine and the reckonings it forced on the continent was a wake-up call with far-reaching implications. Europeans now recognized their vulnerability to chaos in other parts of the world, as well, and saw the need to bolster security relationships in Asia. “We have been too focused on economical relations and not enough on global political developments,” Pistorius said.
At the forum, Pistorius announced that his nation would dispatch a frigate and a supply ship to the South China Sea for freedom of navigation exercises. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also touted his government’s permanent deployment of two warships in the region. Such moves add to Beijing’s fears of geopolitical encirclement by the United States and its allies, but signal a degree of engagement and attention to other Asian powers that may have not existed in prior decades.
“I’ve got a powerful sense that countries in the region welcome the fact that the U.K. is very present in the region, alongside other European partners,” David Lammy, a prominent Labour Party politician and Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, told me on the sidelines of the Dialogue. “But alongside that, it’s clear that there’s no request for NATO to stretch beyond the Atlantic.”
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Ukraine loomed over proceedings often as metaphor and cautionary tale. One prominent official after the next summoned the effects and costs of Russia’s invasion as something no one wants to see repeated in Asia. Mounting U.S.-China tensions and a worrying lack of substantive communication between both sides has put the region on edge.
“As many ministers have said, if you have a simultaneous war in Europe and Asia, it will be catastrophic globally,” Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen told reporters Saturday. “There was a real sincerity and urgency that what happened in Ukraine must not happen in Asia,”
Hanna Shelest, an influential foreign policy expert in Kyiv who attended the forum in Singapore, made a more direct plea. She told me that she hoped China, in particular, would understand that their current course of providing cover for the Kremlin was worth correcting. She urged Beijing to separate its views of the war in Ukraine from its broader confrontation with the United States. “Ukraine should not become hostage” to the U.S.-China dynamic, she said.