When autocracy sneezes, Asia catches cold. Russia's naked power grab in the Caucasus will have global repercussions, nowhere more so than in Asia. While Europe now contemplates a return to long-term tension on Russia's southwestern borders, Moscow's act of war will have lasting effects far from the Black Sea, namely the threat to democratic trends in Asia, and the bolstering of China's global position.
The struggle for freedom in Asia has changed millions of lives, and yet is an unfinished battle. Asia's young democracies, from Mongolia to Taiwan, are no doubt chilled by Georgia's plight. The naked use of force against a sovereign, democratic state by a gargantuan rival sends a message hard to miss. Whatever the pretext, be it natural resources, separatist movements, or old territorial disputes, the reassertion of might over right threatens the political gains of the past decades that have helped Asia become the most vibrant region on earth. Anti-liberal forces at home in these smaller nations will take comfort from the reversion to a machtpolitik world, while other national elites may well be willing to compromise their freedoms to maintain their economic privileges.
Equally threatening to the preservation of young democracies in Asia is the failed Western response to Russia depredation. If Taiwan, even South Korea, feels it can no longer count on the power of the United States to protect it, then there is every incentive to look for patronage from nations willing to use force. Mongolia and the Philippines, even ASEAN as a whole, will think twice about working with Washington or seeking deeper ties, be they economic or political. They understand that they cannot put even part of their national destinies in our hands when we lack the will to support those states that choose to join the liberal community of nations. It is easier to accept the suzerainty of regional autocrats whose extortion demands at least result in protection under the flag of global thuggery.
Yet Washington should be equally concerned that China will emerge a big winner from Russia's actions. At the most basic level, Beijing's autocrats must feel relief that George Bush's second inaugural promise, that "it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation," is just mere words when put to the test by regional aggressors. Whatever their ultimate goals, China's leaders know that these will be more easily achieved in the absence of America's willingness to defend international law, protect friends, and possibly even rescue allies. Such was the impetus behind Beijing's voicing support for Russia's "active role" in Georgia at last week's gathering of Central Asian autocrats, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
At a more nuanced level, however, Beijing's rulers also know they look like, well, like "responsible stakeholders" compared to the crudity and aggression of the Russians. While Medvedev and Putin were squelching Georgia, President Hu and Premier Wen were basking in an Olympic, make that Olympian, glow. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, in town for the sports, conferred with Hu, and China proffered statesman-like calls for restraint to the delight of the assembled media.
This public relations approach will win China plaudits as a respectable broker in international crises. No doubt many will see Beijing as a benign great power, one with tanks and missiles and submarines to be sure, but who refrains from using them, a la other responsible powers. China's long-term repression of Tibet, bullying of neighboring nations over land- or sea-based borders, support for totalitarian North Korea, and stranglehold over Taiwan's future can all be downplayed since Hu has the modicum of self-control lacking in Vladimir Putin. And, those who believe America must work ever harder not to antagonize China, not push it towards irresponsible behavior (as though the choice was ours), will undoubtedly point to the Beijing's triumphal August as the proof needed for Washington to put aside its misplaced doubts and embrace Beijing's place in the sun.
Could there be one silver lining lurking in the clouds? Perhaps President Hu and his coterie will like being compared favorably to Russia, will enjoy being the toast of the international community. In that case, they will know that acting like Putin will cost them that most-favored-nation position, and that a bullying, threatening posture may take the bloom off the rose. On the other hand, they can look at NATO's feeble "consideration of sanctions" and America's hesitant and inadequate response and take heart. Unless the next American President makes a credible recommitment to protecting democratic states, followed by measurable action, all Asia will know which way the wind is blowing.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.