Analysis | Zelensky comes to Asia and scolds China

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SINGAPORE — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise visit to this Southeast Asian city-state in a bid to gin up more global support for his embattled country. Zelensky was among dozens of high-level leaders to appear at this past weekend’s Shangri-La Dialogue, a major annual security forum that convenes the continent’s top defense officials. His country’s outgunned and outmanned military is reckoning with setbacks on the battlefield, including a fresh Russian offensive on the city of Kharkiv. But while Zelensky’s entreaties to Western governments have often hinged on requests for weaponry and munitions to stave off the Russian invaders, he wanted to enlist his Asian interlocutors into a greater project of diplomacy.

Later this month, Switzerland will host a major Ukraine-led peace conference, with more than 100 countries already committed to sending delegations. Russia and China have said they will not participate in the event — which aims to build off Kyiv’s proposed 10-point peace formula that sees Ukraine reclaiming all of its lost territory — and neither may some big countries from the Global South. “We want Asia to know what is going on in Ukraine, Asia to support the end of the war,” Zelensky implored at a news conference. “We want Asian leaders to attend the peace summit.”

The Ukrainian leader held meetings with various prominent officials, including Indonesian president-elect Prabowo Subianto, both the president and prime minister of Singapore, and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. But he was given the cold shoulder by Chinese defense minister Dong Jun and was openly frustrated about his inability to get through to Beijing.


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“Unfortunately Ukraine does not have any powerful connections with China because China does not want it,” Zelensky said.

Zelensky accused China of being an “instrument” of Russia’s agenda to thwart Ukrainian diplomacy. “Russia, using Chinese influence on the region, using Chinese diplomats also, does everything to disrupt the peace summit,” Zelensky said, while also scoffing at Chinese denials of reports that their export of goods to Russia contain material that can be used for military purposes. “Today, there is intelligence that somehow, some way … elements of Russia’s weaponry come from China,” he added.

The Ukrainian leader was hardly alone among the gathered dignitaries in Singapore in upbraiding Beijing. The summit, which is organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a British think tank, kicked off with a keynote speech by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., president of the Philippines, who inveighed against China’s “illegal, coercive, aggressive and deceptive actions” in disputed territorial waters in the South China Sea.

In his Saturday address, Austin without mentioning China by name spoke instead of a “new convergence” of military partnerships and alliances that the United States is deepening with a range of countries throughout the region. “This new convergence is about coming together and not splitting apart,” Austin said, aware of how China bristles at what it sees as a U.S.-led containment strategy. “It’s about the free choices of sovereign states.”

On Sunday morning, Dong delivered what amounted to a Chinese rebuttal, rehashing standard Beijing talking points about the perceived “hegemonic” ambitions of the United States while touting the ability of Asian governments to resolve their own security disputes. He accused the Philippines of being “emboldened” by outside powers and reserved his strongest language for Taiwan, whose newly elected leadership, he said, should be “nailed to the pillar of shame in history.”

Dong warned that the prospect of “peaceful reunification” — as opposed to China seizing the democratic, self-governing island by force — was being “eroded” by Taiwan’s “pro-independence” camp and its foreign backers.

Analysts in the room shook their heads. Chung Min Lee, a Korea scholar, challenged Dong’s platitudes about “nonaggression” and the “Asian way” of peace at a time when many of China’s neighbors are wary of its growing assertiveness and provocations. “How can we trust you when your words and your actions are totally opposite?” Chung asked Dong directly, though the Chinese defense minister opted not to respond.

Jennifer Parker, an expert on maritime affairs at the National Security College in Australian National University, suggested to me that Dong’s demeanor and disposition “gave a clear impression that he came to say what he needed to say for an internal audience, and had no interest in the international audience’s response.” She added that his remarks “sent chills down the spine” and was not “a speech from a minister interested in de-escalation.”

Zelensky’s struggles in Asia are not contained to China. For a host of reasons, Ukraine’s cause has failed to generate in Asia the same sort of emotional, existential angst that it has in much of the West. “I know for some here the war in Ukraine seems further away than it does from my perspective,” Dutch Defense Minister Kajsa Ollongren said at a Friday panel. “But I’m very convinced that the outcome will have a profound impact on all of us and on the global security order.” She pointed to the vast economic impacts of the war and the “fundamental implications” of Russia having “torn up the principles that underpin the international order” through its invasion, occupation and alleged atrocities in Ukraine.

Part of the problem for Ukraine and its Western backers is the prevalence of long-standing Asian cynicism when it comes to such preaching about the international order and universal values.

C. Raja Mohan, of the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore, said that the history of the past century in the region is replete with reminders of Western powers acting in their naked self-interest, often through coercion and sometimes in the support of brutal dictatorships.

“Realists in the chancelleries [of parts of Asia] never believed the [Western] rhetoric because they always knew there was a difference between what the West said and what it did,” Raja Mohan told me. Nevertheless, he added, signs may point in the United States’ favor as, “for those on China’s periphery, it is China’s expansionism that is now the problem.”

José Ramos-Horta, the president of East Timor, met Zelensky and confirmed that he’ll be attending Ukraine’s conference in Switzerland. But he lamented the lack of broader solidarity in the region, pointing to differences in perspective on the conflict and widespread anger over the West’s support of Israel’s bloody campaign in Gaza and the United States’ serial vetoing of U.N. Security Council resolutions aimed at forcing a cease-fire.

“I’m saddened that there isn’t an international collective push to end the ongoing [Ukraine] war,” Ramos-Horta told me. “It is viewed in much of the Global South as a European and American and Russian war. Partly, this has to do with the U.S. and Europe’s incomprehensible tolerance of Israel’s brutal war on the Palestinians.”

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