Dear Week in China readers,
Crimea has often been a source of tension, most famously during the war fought there in 1853 between the Russians, the French, the British and the Ottoman Turks. In the Second World War it also became a major theatre of operations for the invading German army. In fact, so important was the capture of the naval port of Sevastopol, that the Wehrmacht deemed it necessary to bring in the biggest gun ever fired. Nicknamed ‘Big Dora’ by the 4,120 men required to operate and maintain it, the 1,350-tonne weapon was a marvel of German engineering, capable of shooting a 5-tonne shell more than 50 kilometres.
It fired around 40 rounds at the city, one of which penetrated 30 metres below ground to destroy a Soviet bunker, writes Chris Bellamy in his history of the Eastern Front. Sevastopol fell in July 1942.
Crimea was back at the forefront of world events in recent days, although this time barely a shot was fired as it changed hands and Sevastopol reverted to Russian rule.
In a signing ceremony at the Russian parliament, goose-stepping soldiers carried flags and Vladimir Putin explained why Crimea was integral to Russia. He pointedly criticised the “hypocrisy” of the West, but thanked China.
Russia’s absorption of the Crimea at the stroke of four fountain pens was a momentous decision. It is also an event which could have knock-on effects in international affairs for years to come.
There are historic parallels from the 1930s that bear consideration in this respect. Think, for example, of Japan’s 1931 invasion and subsequent annexation of Manchuria: the first challenge to the stability of the ‘liberal international order’ of the inter-war years of the twenties and thirties. No country was willing to take action and only tepid censure followed. Japan got away with it, even though it distanced itself from the international community by quitting the League of Nations, the forerunner of the UN.
This was a lesson not lost on Benito Mussolini. Thinking he too could get his way, the Italian invaded Abyssinia (today’s Ethiopia). In a letter to The Times a disgusted British anti-appeaser called FL Lucas warned: “This jungle-law may have ruled between nations in the past; the time is rapidly approaching when either it ends or else the world.”
Then came the Second World War, the most destructive conflict in human history.
One of the worries about Crimea is the example that it sets in Asia, including for Chinese nationalists who have admired Putin’s chutzpah in facing down the West. They see how he has cocked a snook at the ‘liberal international order’ of the modern day. And given that they consider places like the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku in Japan) as an inalienable part of Chinese territory, why should they not follow Putin’s lead and occupy them?
Japanese military leaders in the thirties upset the balance; European dictators watched and mimicked. On this occasion an act in Europe could inspire challenges to the ‘established order’, this time in Asia.
It’s not too far-fetched. This week the commander of the US Pacific Fleet drew comparisons with events in Crimea and warned Asian nations against “unilateral actions” to capture disputed territory in the region. Admiral Harry Harris specifically referred to China’s “revanchist tendencies”.
As regular readers of WiC will know, we don’t normally run a Letter from the Editor. But on this occasion we are doing so because of reader feedback to last week’s Talking Point about Putin and the Crimea. We’d be interested to know what other subscribers think on the same topic.
If you are Chinese do you share the positive view of Putin expressed by some compatriots in the article? What lessons might China’s leaders draw from his Crimea policy? Or is the potential significance of events there being overstated for Asia? And if you are from elsewhere, what do you think of Beijing’s current stance on Ukraine?
We’d like to hear from you.
Email me on [email protected]
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