Minsk to Manila: What’s Russian Military aggression got to do with Philippine diplomatic relations?

 Minsk to Manila: What’s Russian Military aggression got to do with Philippine diplomatic relations?
KHARKIV Regional State Administration after rocket attacks by Russian occupying military, March 1. — DEPOSITPHOTOS-NATLAP

ON THURSDAY, Feb. 24, the world watched as Russian military forces entered Ukrainian territory, in what Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, described as an “invasion.” Diplomats at the United Nations pleaded for peace, but their words were not enough to impede developments on the ground. As the confrontation escalates, governments must contend with the conflict’s possible implications on their citizens.

For example, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs published a statement about the need to repatriate the 181 Filipinos that are currently in Ukraine. In addition, the country’s economic managers will have to contend with the increasing price of oil, which Reuters reported as rising above $105 per barrel following the Russian attack. Further impacts may be expected as the United States and the European Union implement sanctions against the Russian Federation.

With all that is occurring, however, there is one underdiscussed impact of the invasion that needs to be emphasized, which is that it redirects European and American focus towards eastern Europe, and away from the Indo-Pacific region. Consequently, efforts at engaging with Chinese actions from the Indian Ocean to the Pacific have become a secondary priority.

Both the EU and the USA have publicized strategies for the Indo-Pacific. The EU Strategy for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific was published in April of 2021, and included a clause supporting “free and open maritime trade routes in full compliance with international law.” The Biden administration released its own publication on Feb. 12, less than two weeks before the invasion of Ukraine. The American document elaborated on the government’s “pivot” towards Asia, with the goal of maintaining “US strategic primacy in the Indo-Pacific region” and countering the “cycle of escalating Chinese coercion.”

Both the American and European strategies have implications for the Philippines, since they support the Southeast Asian country’s territorial integrity. Their strategies seek to bolster partnerships with the Philippines, to support it in its territorial disputes with China. However, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the US and EU Indo-Pacific strategies have taken a backseat to the much more immediate threat of military conflict.

However, it would be a grave error to detach Moscow’s aggression from Beijing’s ambition. It is virtually inevitable that Russia and China will become more intertwined. As various countries impose progressively harsher sanctions on Russia and lose faith in diplomatic channels, the Kremlin will lean more on its main Asian ally. Closer to (our) home, China could view the invasion of Ukraine, and an ineffectual Western response, as an indication to more aggressively pursue its goal of finally annexing Taiwan. Taiwan recently reported the incursion of Chinese military aircraft into its air defense space, which lends credence to such anxieties.

Beijing itself has been cautious about engaging with the Ukrainian crisis, but has gradually been leaning closer to Moscow. Initially, it issued a statement that all nations should respect sovereignty — though these words were laughable to neighboring countries with first-hand experience of Beijing’s disregard for international law. More recently, it blamed the West for the crisis in Ukraine, in line with Putin’s insistence that he is defending Russia against NATO expansionism. So, really, how far away from the Spratlys is Kyiv?

These connections mean that the Philippines and its regional allies cannot afford to stay quiet on the Ukrainian crisis. Nor should our concerns be dismissed as second-tier. An emboldened Moscow has repercussions for Asia, as Xi Jinping’s cautious backing of Putin has implications for Europe. If we voice our concerns, we do not distort or downplay the Kremlin-incited conflict, but rather point out that it’s part of a larger phenomenon of authoritarian powers expanding their spheres of influence regionally, and undermining liberal democracy globally.

Indeed, isn’t this feeling of “distance” between countries one reason we are in this global security crisis now? Rising tensions in certain parts of the world were dismissed as being too far away, or happening to unimportant regions. Attending to such tensions earlier could have prevented what looks to be a devastating war in Ukraine, with waves of instability crossing continents. Peace is supposed to remind us that we are all connected; it turns out that war is far more effective.

Manuel R. Enverga III is director and assistant professor at the European Studies Program of the Ateneo de Manila University, where he also serves as Jean Monnet coordinator.

Jamina Vesta Jugo is a doctoral candidate at the University of Goettingen, and part-time lecturer at the European Studies Program of the Ateneo de Manila University.