By Kishore Mahbubani, a distinguished fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Asia Research Institute
The lesson for U.S. strategy from Russia’s war in Ukraine is simple: Geopolitical pragmatism is better at keeping the peace than the morally absolutist view that every country should be free to choose its own destiny, regardless of the geopolitical consequences.
Of course, the Russian invasion must be condemned. Yet those who recklessly advocated NATO membership for Ukraine and accelerated Western arms shipments to the country must also bear some moral responsibility for leading the Ukrainian geopolitical lamb to the slaughter and for creating massive global instability. All this pain and suffering could have been avoided had those who counseled geopolitical pragmatism—including great strategic thinkers such as George F. Kennan and Henry Kissinger, who warned about this precise issue—been listened to.
In Asia, it is equally dangerous to take the morally absolutist view that the people of Taiwan should be free to choose their own destiny. Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advocated this on a recent visit to Taiwan when he said “the U.S. government should immediately take necessary, and long-overdue, steps” and offer Taiwan “diplomatic recognition as a free and sovereign country.”
There are few geopolitical certainties in the world. One of them is that if Taiwan unilaterally declares independence, China will declare war on it. This is why few people in Asia advocate independence for Taiwan.
Equally importantly, unlike the strong Western response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there would be no similarly united Asian response to a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. The lack of a forceful response wouldn’t prove that Asian countries are immoral—only that they don’t approve of geopolitical recklessness.
The biggest change in mindset required of U.S. policymakers engaged in Indo-Pacific policy is to drop the black-and-white political lens that leads them to work only with allies and partners—for example, those in the AUKUS pact, including Australia and the United Kingdom, or the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, including Australia, India, and Japan. Instead, the United States needs to learn to be geopolitically pragmatic and work with groups in Asia that include China.
There’s one fundamental difference between Europe and Asia that U.S. policymakers might consider as they shape their future strategy. Whereas the Russian economy, notwithstanding its role as an energy supplier, is only lightly integrated into the European geoeconomic space, China’s is fully integrated in Asia. For example, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ trade with China was nearly double its trade with the United States in 2020.
Critics of Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy are right to point at the big hole in this strategy where a long-term economic policy should be. But the hole is even bigger than that: The United States lacks the capacity to fashion geopolitically pragmatic strategies that align with those of most Asian states, which have no issue including China in their regional groupings. In fact, they recognize that binding China within multilateral groupings is the best approach. If this kind of geopolitical pragmatism prevents the outbreak of war in Asia—whether over Taiwan or another issue—it will be far superior to the West’s moral absolutism over Ukraine.
Source: Foreign Policy