Japan, which invented the contemporary geopolitical idea of the Indo-Pacific, is now well on its way to changing the way we think about the relationship between Asia and Europe. In his swing through Europe last week, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s message was simple: The security of Europe and the Indo-Pacific is indivisible.
Building on the ideas of his predecessor, the late Shinzo Abe, Kishida is determined to build strong military partnerships with Europe. Japan is not alone in this endeavour. South Korea, which does not always see eye to eye with Japan, is also joining the party by raising its profile in Europe. Seoul, for example, is selling major weapons platforms in Poland. Australia, which has joined the US and UK in the AUKUS arrangement, is equally eager to bring Europe into the Indo-Pacific. Together Japan, South Korea and Australia are bridging the divide between Asia and Europe long seen as separate geopolitical theatres. This process has been accelerated by Russia’s war in Ukraine and the alliance between Moscow and Beijing. This new dynamic presents challenges as well as opportunities for India. But first to the emergence of a new Eurasia.
Well before Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol turned to Europe, it was Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin who altered the geopolitical dynamic in Eurasia. Days before he ordered his armies into Ukraine, Putin travelled to Beijing last February to sign an agreement declaring an alliance “without limits” and no “forbidden areas”. China, which had made a largely successful effort to cultivate Europe since the 1990s, deliberately avoided taking sides in Europe’s conflicts with Russia. But on the eve of the Ukraine war, Xi chose to tilt towards Moscow by blaming NATO for the crisis in Ukraine. Xi perhaps went along with Putin’s calculation that the West is not only deeply divided but also in terminal decline. He might also have bet that Putin’s success in Europe will enormously improve China’s chances for its long-sought dominance over Asia.
Together, Putin and Xi unveiled a Eurasian alliance that they might have hoped would deliver the long-awaited coup de grace to the global hegemony of the West. What it did instead was to not only strengthen the Western alliance in Europe but also provide the basis for a new kind of Eurasia — an alliance between China’s East Asian neighbours and Russia’s West European neighbours.
The idea of Eurasia is not new. Many used it as a neutral term to describe the vast landmass that connected Europe and Asia. Despite continental continuity, Europe and Asia emerged as separate political and cultural spheres over the millennia. Russia, which straddles this space, saw itself as both a European and Asian power but had trouble becoming a part of either. When post-Soviet Russia’s effort to integrate with the West soured in the 2000s, it developed “Eurasia” and “Greater Eurasia” as new geopolitical constructs. Consolidating the former Soviet space, restoring influence in Central Europe, building a strong alliance with China, and limiting Western influence in the continental heartland became part of Putin’s Eurasian strategy. The occupation of Crimea in 2014 and the invasion of Ukraine are a product of what Putin sees as his historic mission of reuniting the “Russkiy Mir” or the Russian world. He was determined to pursue it despite the massive costs associated with the strategy.
The unintended consequences of Putin’s Eurasian strategy — the expansion of NATO in particular — have been widely discussed. But the impact on Asia has been equally dramatic. Nowhere has this been more significant than in Japan.
Tokyo was quick to see the implications of the Sino-Russian alliance and the Ukraine war for Asian security. Locked in bilateral maritime territorial disputes with China and apprehensive of Beijing’s potential invasion of Taiwan, PM Kishida declared “Ukraine could be the future of Asia”. Since then he has built a new consensus in Tokyo to radically redefine Japan’s security policy. This includes plans to double annual defence spending over the next five years from the current level of $50 billion. Japan will also build a large missile arsenal to deter China (and North Korea, whose missile capabilities have grown). Tokyo also wants to revive its domestic defence industry as well as build military capacities on the Chinese periphery by exporting arms.
Some see this robust defence posture and a new security engagement with Europe as reflecting Japan’s desire to reduce its strategic reliance on the US. Quite the opposite. The US remains the central pillar of Japanese security policy. It is Washington that has been nudging Japan to adopt an expansive defence posture and take greater responsibility for regional security in Asia.
At the instance of the US, the NATO summit in Madrid in June invited key Asian partners to participate. The prime ministers of Australia, Japan and New Zealand as well as the president of South Korea joined the summit. This is the first time that Asian leaders joined NATO deliberations. This is certainly not a one-shot event. NATO’s engagement with Indo-Pacific issues and East Asia’s engagement with European security will continue to be new features of Eurasian geopolitics. In its National Security Strategy released late last year, the Biden Administration articulated the desire to see its allies and partners in Europe and Asia collaborate more with each other. Washington now recognises it can’t secure Europe and Asia on its own. It is eager to encourage its partners, including India, to build their capabilities and strengthen regional balances of power in Europe and Asia.
For India, the rise of Eurasia is making it harder to ride on two boats at the same time. Until now, India could easily hunt with the maritime coalition — the Quad — in the Indo-Pacific and run at the same time with the continental coalitions led by Russia and China. This was possible so long as the maritime and continental powers were not at each other’s throats. But the conflict between the US, Europe, and Japan on the one hand and China and Russia on the other is now acute and shows no signs of immediate amelioration.
On the downside, then, India’s mounting security challenges from China on the Himalayan frontier and the tightening embrace between Moscow and Beijing will mean the shadow over India’s continental strategy will become darker in the days ahead. On the upside, the possibilities for strengthening India’s strategic capabilities in partnership with the US and Europe as well as Japan, South Korea and Australia have never been stronger. It is up to Delhi now to seize the emerging possibilities.
The writer is Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express
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