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East Asia, Africa watching Ukraine-Russia war closely

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine is about to enter its third month, its impacts in Ukraine, Europe, and beyond have been closely scrutinized. While much attention has rightfully been paid to the human suffering central to the conflict, particularly in Europe, the repercussions of the Russia-Ukraine war have been felt, and will be felt, across the globe.

Countries in East Asia have been watching the conflict evolve closely, according to Professor of Government Deidre Martin, noting with interest both the role of the US in aiding its allies and the potential precedents concerning territorial acquisition being set by Russia.

“Japan,” Martin said, “is extremely interested. There’s been an ongoing concern since the end of the Cold War, but also in the last ten years, about American commitment to its allies. The question on the mind of Japanese leaders is: how likely is the United States to come to the aid of one of its allies if a conflict were to break out?”

The Japanese constitution, written in the aftermath of World War II, forbids Japan from using military forces to conduct foreign policy, and the country does not technically have a military, instead utilizing a “Self-Defense Force.” Martin observed that while Japan has the ninth-largest military budget in the world, they are forbidden by their constitution to project force abroad, representing an artificial restraint on Japanese military capabilities.

“[Japan’s] been able to do that, in large part because of the US-Japan alliance,” Martin said. “I think similar concerns are probably in place in South Korea, as well, as [while] they have a strong alliance with the United States, they also face existential military threats.”

“The Asian countries are essentially very, very interested in how proactively the United States will work to protect and engage with its allies,” Martin continued, “and with NATO in particular because that’s seen as a good indication of whether or not they would back Japan or South Korea.”

It is worth noting that unlike Japanese security guarantees, the US has not made strong security assurances to Ukraine beyond those reflecting modern ideals that state sovereignty and self-determination is paramount in international law. However, the crisis between Ukraine and Russia and Putin’s territorial claim to Ukrainian territory has an eerie regional similarity to Chinese claims on Taiwan.

“China claims that Taiwan is technically part of its sovereignty,” Martin explained. “And the stated position of the People’s Republic of China is that Taiwan will reunify with China at some point, by force, if necessary.”

The US has given explicit assurances to Taiwan that America would go to war with China in order to protect Taiwan.

According to Martin, this security guarantee has framed the war in Ukraine.

“It is essentially seen as almost a testing ground for what would happen if China were to make claims on Taiwan or try to invade Taiwan militarily,” Martin said. “The Ukrainian crisis has been just a tragedy on a bunch of different levels. I think Japanese leadership is probably very reassured by what they have seen in terms of the international response to the invasion of sovereign states; [from] Germany building its military capabilities [to] the Swiss breaking their neutrality for the first time in the modern era. I think that the Japanese view that as a good signal that if there were to be some kind of conflict in which China sought things that they didn’t have legal claim to, that the international community would come together in the face of that.”

Martin also addressed the role China has played in the spiraling Ukraine crisis.

“The intelligence that has come out of China paints most policymakers in the Communist Party as extremely surprised that this actually happened,” Martin said. “Xi and Putin released a statement that was to the effect of, nothing that we do could affect our relationship with one another, which some people think embolden Putin.”

This chain of events has placed China in a somewhat awkward position in which it is torn between its relationship with Russia and the primacy it places on state sovereignty in its foreign policy. Moreover, while Martin belives that China did not want to be seen as fully aligned with Russia and risk joining it as an international pariah, the Chinese do see NATO as a threat in their quest to build regional hegemony.

“On the one hand, [China] needs it to be okay for Russia to invade Ukraine, so that it can be okay for China to invade Taiwan at some point,” Martin explained. “They need the international community to not band together against the invasion because that’s a really bad signal about how Taiwan is likely to go. At the same time, they can’t legitimize the language that Putin used either because that would legitimize some of the claims that the Americans make about why they need to intervene if Taiwan is attacked. So they are playing a very delicate game.”

However, the non-European impacts of the Russia-Ukraine war have not been limited to East Asia. Professor of Government Laura Seay has been analyzing the effects of the war in Africa, particularly in terms of food security.

“Both Russia and Ukraine are major producers and exporters of grains, of cooking oil, and fertilizer,” Seay said. “29% of global wheat exports come from Russia and Ukraine.”

They are also responsible for 19% of global corn exports, 80% of global sunflower oil exports (which is used widely in Eastern and Central African cooking) — 40% of the wheat and corn that Russia and Ukraine produce goes to the Middle East and Africa. Given the significant urbanization trend in Africa, the disruption of food supply like to be felt during summer harvests will be particularly acute as over half the population of Africa lives in urban environments who cannot produce their own foodstuffs.

“People need a certain minimum of calories to survive,” Seay said. “Children need a certain minimum of calories to grow and properly develop. If you cut off even one or two percent of calories that are traded in the world, it is going to have profound impacts.”

According to Seay, around 12% of global calories traded worldwide originate in Russia and Ukraine, setting the stage for a profound global and regional food crisis.

Lack of access to fertilizer will also likely be an emerging issue. Russia and Belarus are major producers of fertilizer, which African farmers use to increase crop yield and calories.

“If you take [fertilizer] out of the equation, that will reduce crop yields on the African continent and cause serious food security, including in places that are already very food insecure,” Seay said. “About one-in-ten people worldwide don’t have enough to eat in the first place. And this could significantly exacerbate that problem.”

Despite the depth of the potential food insecurity issue, news coverage has been sparse on the subject, focusing mainly on the conflict itself. Seay speculated that the immediacy of the Ukraine crisis has obscured other ways the war will impact the world.

“This is something that is going to become a huge issue in the future,” Seay said, “And I think that the attention to it, unfortunately, will be pretty delayed. Especially as the summer crops start to come in, if and when farmers can’t harvest that grain, that will be a massive challenge.”

As the war in Ukraine continues to be waged, the global and regional impacts will be brought into clearer focus. In this age of globalization, the effects will undoubtedly spill across borders and even continents, making it essential to analyze the war and its accompanying consequences from all angles.

~ Conall Butchart `22

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