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Opinion

Asia can no longer rely on Europe

Efforts to balance China's growing influence should be developed from within

| Europe
Britain's security support package for Ukraine at Boryspil International Airport outside Kyiv on Feb. 9: The majority of military aid has been provided by just a few European powers.   © Reuters

William Bratton is author of "China's Rise, Asia's Decline." He was previously head of equity research, Asia-Pacific, at HSBC.

There is a rich irony in Europe lecturing China and others in Asia about the need to sanction Russia, while many European countries continue to finance its aggression through substantial purchases of oil and gas.

In fact, the attempts by some European nations to avoid the economic costs of the emerging geopolitical realities create contradictions so painfully obvious that they undermine any moral coercion the region may wish to exert on more distant partners. They also raise profound questions as to the extent to which Asian states can rely on their European peers as partners to counter China's growing influence.

Europe may highlight the sanctions imposed on Russia to date as indicative of its unified intent, but these cannot hide three uncomfortable facts. First, the willingness of European countries to confront Russia was not uniform, with some having to be pressured into a compromised and incremental sanctions policy. Second, Europe continues to enable Russia's aggression by paying it billions of dollars for energy. And third, the majority of military aid to Ukraine has been provided by just a few European powers, while too many stood on the sidelines and actively cautioned against the large-scale arming of the country.

There are, of course, underlying reasons for these facts. The unwillingness of some to apply maximum sanctions reflects a reluctance to incur the subsequent economic costs. And a full prohibition on Russian energy imports would almost certainly plunge Germany, and probably the whole of the European Union, into a recession, something they are undeniably keen to avoid.

But it has to be remembered that such countries voluntarily put themselves in this vulnerable position. It was not that they were unaware of the longer-term folly of these dependencies but that their actions were driven by other economic and domestic priorities. As a result, even after Russia annexed Crimea and had displayed its obvious intentions toward Ukraine, Germany, Italy and other European nations kept buying Russian gas and oil and continue to do so even today.

This willingness to buy Russian energy contrasts starkly with the earlier unwillingness, especially by many of Europe's larger economies, to supply weapons to Ukraine to defend themselves, at least until Russia's invasion was well underway. But becoming wise after the war had begun and then permitting the shipment of materiel is of little help to those now caught in a whirlwind of destruction which could have been prevented by more active deterrence.

Some European countries did supply weapons, notably the U.K., but were uncharitably accused of saber-rattling and escalation. Such accusations were, however, probably a way for some in the region to avoid the sorry reality that they could not actually offer any significant defensive support after decades of underinvestment in their militaries. This was highlighted by the head of the German army when he declared his frustration over its "bare" capabilities and the "extremely limited" support it could offer to its partners.

It is no surprise, therefore, that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has criticized many of Europe's larger powers for not being wholehearted in their support for his country. He has described France as being "afraid" of Russia, reflecting comments by French President Emmanuel Macron that he is "trying to protect [France] from an escalation of war," and that Germany had "made a mistake" by trying to balance economics with geopolitics.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv on April 12: It is no surprise that Zelenskyy has criticized many of Europe's larger powers for not being wholehearted in their support. (Handout photo from the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office)   © AP

Now all of this may appear irrelevant to many in Asia, nothing more than a distant proxy war being waged for influence on Europe's borders. But it should not be dismissed so easily, especially as it clearly shows that Asia would be foolish to place too much emphasis on European countries as potential strategic partners to balance China's growing power.

If Europe's energy dependencies conflicted with its response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, then the strength of the region's economic relationship with China should be ringing cautionary alarms.

The Asian superpower is the European Union's largest trading partner in merchandise goods, with flows dwarfing those with Russia. And given many in Europe were hesitant to take difficult decisions against Russia, it would take a degree of confidence for those in Asia to assume that the European powers would instinctively and uniformly put partnerships with distant and less important countries ahead of their economic self-interests.

Furthermore, although nations across Europe are now belatedly waking up to the insidious consequences of running down their militaries, the announced defense budget increases will only go some way to repairing the damage inflicted by decades of underinvestment and negligence. They are not going to suddenly give Europe's militaries a greater global presence nor contribute to Asia's changing military balance.

But more fundamentally, the current Ukraine crisis demonstrates that geography still matters. It defines the way we view the world. Things happening closer to us are seen as more important than those more distant. And in the same way that many in Asia debate the need to be involved in a European conflict, many in Europe would almost certainly question why an Asian crisis, in whatever form, should entangle them.

Therefore, given the precedent set by their response to the Ukraine crisis, the apparent relative importance of economic self-interest and the persistent role of geography, it is unclear why anybody in Asia would expect European countries to play anything more than a marginal role in the region's evolving geopolitical landscape.

As such, the main lesson for Asia from the Ukraine crisis is that any efforts by Asian states to balance China's growing influence should be developed from within the region. At the end of the day, countries within Asia will always be more sensitive to changes in the regional balance of power and will, therefore, be far more likely to come to the aid of a neighbor than the distant, conflicted and powerless European nations.

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