Asia Shares a WWII Hangover with Ukraine

The Russian invasion of part of Ukraine is surely contrary to all international rules and norms. But it is also a reminder that the supposed inviolability of international borders as established after the Second World War, and by the de-colonization process of the following 40 years, is fraught with problems.

Every country resists to the end the idea of losing what it deems sovereign territory yet clinging on to territory often comes at the price of internal wars and/or international tensions. The borders of Ukraine are a very obvious problem which left the Crimea, where Russians are a large majority and where Russia bases its Black Sea fleet, as part of Ukraine.

Likewise, significant parts of eastern Ukraine should have been part of Russia. That these anomalies came about was largely the result of the Russians themselves – or at least of the Soviet Union in the era of Josef Stalin.

In order to maintain the myth of the USSR as a union of nationalities while ensuring that nationalisms were kept in check, Stalin drew borders for subservient republics which ensured that they contained significant minorities of people with linguistic and cultural allegiances to other republics. Thus Russians were a large minority in Ukraine. Central Asian republics such as Uzbekistan, Kyrgistan and Tajikistan all had large minorities of each other’s ethnic group.

Stalin added to the mess by uprooting most of the Crimean tatars – descendants of the Turkic speaking, Muslim population before Russia’s conquest of Crimea in the 18th century – and shipping them to Uzbekistan. That was after a large percentage of them had already died in famines in 1930s with Russian ethnic prejudices against them adding to the huge death toll from Stalin’s political purges and collectivization.

Ukraine’s geography was further confused by the Soviet seizure in 1939 of western Poland, including the city of Lvov. The Soviets were allowed to keep this in 1945 while Poland got former German lands in the west, ethnically cleansed of Germany by the victorious powers, USSR, US and Britain.

Other former Soviet republics do not have quite the same concentration of Russians as do parts of Ukraine. Nonetheless there are enough Russians left in Kazakhstan, Lithuania and Latvia that governments will doubtless feel more nervous of Russian desires to use ethnic Russians and the implicit threat of “defending” them to reassert influence in the “near abroad” as Russia refers to its once subject neighbors.

What China makes of all this is not yet clear. On the one hand it is happy to see the west’s discomfort, which condemns Moscow but is unable to restrain President Vladimir Putin. On the other China should worry about any changes of land borders achieved by force or for ethnic reasons.

While it may want to expand its maritime boundaries, China should be more than satisfied by the land borders bequeathed by the (Manchu) Qing dynasty which massively expanded the empire to include Manchuria, Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan and part of Mongolia. Unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet is a constant reminder of the impermanence of many borders which defy ethnicity, religion and language.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has specifically claimed Russia’s right to “protect” Russians in Ukraine (and anywhere, presumably). That might be a nice precedent for the Chinese, whose diaspora reaches into every corner of Southeast Asia, if not to the rest of the world including but not limited to Canada, Australia and the United States.

Ukraine must also be a worry, however distant, in Southeast Asia. Russia moved for several reasons but one was to protect ethnic Russians. So would this encourage China to be more involved with the interests of ethnic Chinese in the region? It is already apparent that Malaysia’s faint-hearted approach to China’s South China Sea claims, which ultimately are as dangerous to Malaysia as to Vietnam and the Philippines, is linked to a need not to provoke China into offering itself as the protector of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia.

That Chinese increasingly think in ethnic terms is clear from the reactions to outgoing US ambassador to China, Gary Locke, with some official news media suggesting that he was “disloyal to his race” by defending US interests, implying not just deep racist thinking but the notion that the PRC represents the Chinese race globally.

Such Han Chinese ethnocentrism is not new but is rightly viewed with alarm by small countries with significant Chinese minorities. Viewed another way, it is an invitation to the the kind of massacres which took place in Indonesia nearly 50 years ago when real or imagined pro-Beijing communists became excuse for a wider killings of Chinese and others.

Borders left from the past are another issue for Southeast Asia. The most obvious today are in Thailand and Myanmar. The insurgency in the former’s three southern Malay-speaking, Muslim provinces is the result of the British failure, in 1909 (and again in 1946) to detach the Pattani sultanate from Bangkok’s overlordship at the same time as Kelantan and other sultanates which became part of independent Malaya in 1957. Thailand, Malaysia and ASEAN as a whole would be better off if the three provinces were allowed to join Malaysia. But that is unmentionable not just in Thailand but throughout an Asia for which borders established by foreign rulers are now inviolate.

But at least the history of that is clear and is not complicated by migration in recent times. That cannot be said of Rakhine (Arakan) state in Myanmar, focus of the Rohingya issue where the history, at least since 1945, is opaque and the timing and extent of Bengali migration into the region is so hard to establish. What proportion came before, during or after British rule?

To make matters worse, to religious and linguistic differences is added a purely racial dimension, the low esteem Burmese tend to have for the Rohingyas, with their darker skins and south Asian features. This contributes to refusal to acknowledge them as citizens. As of now the situation seems beyond resolution without movement of borders or people, or both, as the Rohingyas are believed to make up about 40 percent of the state’s population. But neither is politically possible.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia there are few such stark dilemmas. Nonetheless the politics of Borneo has long been one of fluctuating states and parts of states and there is little sense of long-term permanence about Sarawak and Sabah as parts of Malaysia. Indeed while island Southeast Asia has long had common cultural and linguistic bonds it has scant history of permanent states.

As for Papua, whether chaotic Papua New Guinea, or restive West Papua the future is anyone’s guess. There has been a firm demarcation line between Melanesia and Austronesia for millennia and Jakarta will find it very difficult to break through it.

These are of course minor issues on the international stage compared with Ukraine with its 45 million people at the intersection of the lands of Orthodox Christianity and the Cyrillic alphabet and the Roman foundations of the great countries to the west – Poland, Germany and France. Nonetheless every nation is more concerned with its own issues than what impact, if any, they may have internationally.

The potential for wars over borders and ethnic groups is even greater in the Middle East. The lack of a Kurdish state in this era of nation states is an obvious anomaly. The existence of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates look a temporary arrangement built on oil, and the inhabitants of Syria, Iraq and Palestine should have every reason to mourn the passing of the Ottoman empire and its replacement, after a brief interlude of European control, by incoherent states mostly ruled by brutality.

In short, Russia’s de facto detachment of Crimea from Ukraine is not just a major event in itself but symbolic of the gradual fracturing of the neat maps of the world of nation states with borders sanctified by the United Nations and for a while frozen by the Cold War. Map makers are assured a busy future.