Crimea and the complex military occupation that now exists in Ukraine is an all too reasonable and underexplored model for future conflict in Asia.
When we think about conflict in Asia, a handful of flashpoints come to mind: the Taiwan Strait, East China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula. Increasingly the South China Sea. And when we think about how these conflicts might erupt, we almost inevitably imagine a confrontation in which two parties deliberately confront each other, a test of resolve occurs, and undesirable but essential escalation ensues. In essence, we imagine a deterrence game between national militaries that gets out of hand. Far from being unthinkable, sadly, such scenarios are by far the most thinkable.
But modern conflicts don’t really look like that, and futurists who concern themselves with war and strategy suggest a different model for what future conflicts and conflict processes might resemble: Crimea.
At least four features of the Crimea conflict apply to the Asia context: ethnic divides clashing with spheres of influence; non-state groups with geopolitical demands; the potential for unlikely partnerships between states and social groups; and gray zone conflict. Each of these characteristics was central to the Crimea conflict, but each constitutes a largely overlooked factor germane to Asia and the prospect of future conflict.
Ethnic Divides and Spheres of Influence
The Crimea conflict was only possible because a large ethnically Russian population existed in Ukraine, combined with Russian ambitions to secure a European sphere of influence and prioritizing those lands with large Russian ethnic populations. While ethnic divides abound in Asia, they frequently fall along nationalist lines between states, fueling conflict in a very traditional manner. This is why most Asia hands still focus on states and national militaries as the primary security challenges, even in an era of globalization, integration, and individual empowerment.
But China, India, and Japan are beginning to seek spheres of influence in the region. Sometimes this may bring these countries into conflict as they contest one another’s spheres. In other instances though, it brings outside powers into the affairs of smaller states. In these instances, ethnic rivalries are as much a motivation as securing strategic resources or transit routes for trade. Key flashpoints often overlooked in this regard are the ethnically Chinese population in Myanmar (parts of which are fighting an insurgency against the central government), the Tamil population in Sri Lanka (which has a complex relationship with neighboring India, and Nepal (which intermingles ethnic Indian and Chinese populations). Each of these locations fall in the overlapping spheres of influence for multiple countries, but also includes a considerable ethnic population that favors one outside power over another.
Geopolitical Demands from Non-State Groups
This is becoming more of a problem over time, though depending on your perspective, it may be seen as an indicator of democratization and individual empowerment. In Ukraine, a large ethnically Russian population initially sought to align Ukraine more closely with Russia, but as political events transpired, eventually sought outright secession of Crimea from Ukraine. Russia obliged these demands and possibly instigated them.
In Asia, we still think of geopolitics as primarily (or even solely) the domain of states, yet there are numerous social groups with geopolitical demands and the ability to occasionally mobilize collectively to pursue their demands. Myanmar, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka are homes to three of the most demanding sets of non-state groups—all fighting outright insurgencies that challenge the legitimacy of those governments.
But there are also less likely hotspots exhibiting the same dynamics. In Taiwan, when the ruling Guomindang sought to close a trade deal with China that would have brought it much more fully under mainland China’s political orbit, the Sunflower movement was born. College students, academics, and opposition politicians mobilized in the streets and the legislature to protest and ultimately block the Taiwan-PRC trade deal. And around the world but particularly in South Korea, there are large semi-organized populations who seek regime change in North Korea. However justified their goals, the fact remains that in all these cases and more, large non-state groups in Asia have shown an ability to pursue, and occasionally secure, geopolitical aims.
Potential for Unlikely Alliances
Nobody predicted that Russia would form a quasi-alliance with the ethnically Russian population of another country, funneling paramilitary forces, weapons, and logistics support to help the cause of secession. In hindsight that prospect seems all too obvious. Similar potential exists across Asia today and in the future.
Any non-state group with geopolitical ambitions that align with those of another government is a possible latent alliance that would disrupt traditional national boundaries. Ethnically Chinese populations in Myanmar or the Philippines may have the same interests as mainland China. North Korean diasporas across Asia, especially in China, are key to illicit trafficking networks into and out of North Korea, which is reliant on these networks for foreign currency. And Sri Lanka’s ethnic minority Hindu Tamils have occasionally found common cause with Hindus occupying southern India, which far outnumber the Sinhalese ruling government in Sri Lanka.
The point is that when non-state groups have geopolitical interests, they become interested in aligning themselves with states that may be able to help them. States, in turn, may be willing to partner with non-state groups in various ways if it gives them some advantage in securing their geopolitical goals.
Gray Zone Conflict
Crimea was also an example of a gray zone conflict—militarized violence occurred, but in such a way that Russia was able to maintain a thin veil of deniability. Why would Russia seek to deny responsibility for aggression in Crimea? To fracture international consensus, rally domestic opinion, and evade international opprobrium as much as possible. Those seem like pretty good—and universal—reasons for denying being a provocateur. These same incentives exist for any conflict by any perpetrator in Asia—even North Korea.
No aggressor in an age of complex interdependence can afford to be seen as a naked aggressor, which is why China has pioneered gray zone coercion in the East and South China Seas. It’s also why North Korean provocations often take the form of guerrilla and clandestine activities it can deny. When states decide to wage violence, they must do so in a limited way to mitigate penalties against their economic interests or energy imports. This makes limited war the most likely type of war in Asia’s future.
A future of limited, gray zone conflicts can be seen as good or bad. It’s good in the sense that wars of mass mobilization (and thus mass casualties) are less likely over time. It’s bad to the extent that states realize there are strong incentives all around for any conflict to remain limited because they might be emboldened by that fact to take greater risks.
The collective imagination of European and NATO specialists failed to foresee Russia’s conflict with Ukraine. Asia faces comparable risks, and in many instances they’re more acute than in Russia’s periphery. Hopefully the collective imagination of Asia specialists doesn’t leave the international community blindsided by failing to see Crimea as a possible model of future war rather than a distant anomaly.