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Tea Leaves

Not everyone sees Ukraine as the main issue

Emerging countries accuse the West of hypocrisy

Tourists and locals in Bangkok celebrate Songkran by spraying each other with water guns and partying on Khaosan Road on April 13. Much of Southeast Asia is disconnected from the far-off war in Ukraine. (Getty Images)

Comparisons are useful checks on reality. Having spent decades observing the nature of Asian politics and society, it was instructive to spend two months in Africa at a time when both Asia and Africa are being challenged by the most serious security crisis the world has faced since the Cold War. Or is that really the case?

To be sure, prices are rising in both regions. Long queues outside gas stations in Nairobi in April reflected less of a fuel shortage than haggling between the government and suppliers over how high the price should go. In drought-stricken areas of Somalia there is a fear of shortages of essential foodstuffs as the war in Ukraine threatens to drastically affect global grain supplies. But when I suggested to grumbling residents of Nairobi that the war in Ukraine was to blame, they shrugged and said it was government corruption.

What struck me, despite the wide disparities in development and stability between, say, Sudan and Thailand, was how uninterested most people in both places are in the Ukraine conflict although there has been a loud chorus of emotional outrage emanating from Western countries.

The Sudanese are distracted: A military coup in 2021 unseated a civilian-led transitional council and since then almost daily protests by determined young people have been met with lethal force. There is precious little foreign exchange in the country amid runaway inflation. The civic infrastructure is crumbling. Sidewalks are invaded by sand and the hulks of wrecked cars litter the roadside -- a testament to months of violent protests. The proud municipal and government buildings along Nile Street appear empty and in a state of severe disrepair.

Even as Russian mercenaries from the shadowy Wagner Group mine gold in the country and ship it out via Sudan's Red Sea port, Russia's invasion of Ukraine doesn't play a role in resistance to the well-armed police and militia who line the streets of Khartoum. When I watched the younger protesters wreathed in tear gas, they carried aloft pictures of the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, shot and killed by the Israeli army in May. No Ukrainian flags in sight.

Sudanese journalists gather in Khartoum in May to protest the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh while covering an Israeli raid in the West Bank. (Getty Images)

For different reasons much of Southeast Asia is also disconnected from the far-off war in Ukraine. Life is slowly returning to normal in Thailand. Tourists are again thronging to beaches as the COVID-19 pandemic recedes and travel restrictions are lifted. Arriving from Nairobi, I found Bangkok's airport jammed. Here too there were no Ukrainian flags welcoming refugees, only thousands of foreign tourists seeking a tropical escape.

For many Westerners, Russia's invasion and the daily reports of military atrocities demands global outrage and sanctions. And yet, the opposite is happening. The growing divide between Russia and the West has become a lightning rod for anti-Western sentiment.

Young protesters in Mali have taken to the streets and on social media supporting Russia and demanding that French troops leave the country. In Thailand, ultraconservative commentator Sondhi Limthongkul considers the Western campaign against Russia as a fool's errand which it cannot win, and urges his followers to place their faith in China instead.

For some Asian leaders, the West's anguished hand-wringing and pressure for sanctions on Russia smacks of hypocrisy. India's foreign secretary, S. Jaishankar, spoke for many in the wider Asian region when he hit out at the West's double standards, by which his government was asked to halt oil imports from Russia as Europe continued until recently to import Russian energy supplies.

Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar has been critical of what he sees as the West's double standards, citing how his government was asked to halt oil imports from Russia as Europe continued until recently to import Russian energy supplies. (Getty Images) 

Across Africa and Asia, rather than the Ukraine war serving as an inflection point of global security that reinforces Western centrality, it is seen as evidence of diminishing Western power and influence. This will have far-reaching implications for the future of both continents. Not lost on many Asian leaders is the fact that the U.S. is shoveling billions of dollars into arms for Ukraine, while the Biden administration only managed to pledge a measly $150 million for investment in Southeast Asia after a summit of regional leaders in Washington.

Other big powers have already started to fill the vacuum. In eastern Africa, Turkey, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are emerging as new sources of trade and aid, and therefore commanding influence. In Asia, China, despite its flagging economic performance, has stepped up diplomatic efforts to establish security agreements in Pacific island nations.

What all this means long term will depend on how badly Western interests are mauled in Ukraine. But as much as India's Foreign Secretary Jaishankar regrets Europe's selfish preoccupations with Ukraine, many of the world's problems remain of interest to the West. The U.S. will continue to push for stronger military alliances in Asia to counter China's power and influence. Europe must continue the flow of aid to drought-stricken Africa because political stability and viable economies are seen as key to controlling the mass migration northward to European shores.

Asia and Africa might relish the humbling of Western influence in rhetorical terms, but there's a happy equilibrium in balancing new emerging powers, who play by less transparent rules, with older ones with their paternalistic but still rather predictable norms.

Michael Vatikiotis is senior adviser at the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue. His latest book is "Lives Between the Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant" (2021).

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