ESQUIRE: Parag, to start with—could you help set the context of what’s occurring in the world today? Is the war in Ukraine really that unprecedented or has it been a long time coming?
Dr. PARAG KHANNA: It’s a great question. The immediate term that comes to mind when we think of how this has come about is ‘frozen conflict’. Very often, we use this term to describe events like these; it could be Palestine or the South China Sea or other such political hotspots—because they haven’t exactly blown up recently, or they’re not blowing up in the news every day. We treat them as dormant. My attitude has always been that these frozen conflicts need to be aggressively tamed and resolved, because otherwise they remain powder kegs. That would be the logic I would apply to this; because clearly what you have here is a dilemma where it only takes one side to be unreasonable for the whole situation to be explosive.
ESQ: So in a way, this conflict has remained unresolved for an extended period of time, and essentially it’s now come to a boiling point?
PARAG: Exactly. For Putin—whether we’re talking about the Eastern provinces, Crimea or Ukraine’s relations with the West—all three things remain unresolved. They’ve been unresolved for about the last 20 years, quite frankly. That is as far as Putin is concerned. Essentially, what that comes down to is that this is one of those frozen conflicts we should have been much more aggressively seeking to resolve to begin with.
ESQ: Are you surprised by the way things are panning out with the war as it stands?
PARAG: I’m not surprised it’s blown up this way. Someone like Putin is always looking to poke and prod and undermine the West in many ways. We can only think back to his campaign on behalf of Trump and the US election [in 2016]. Or again, when there was Brexit or his invasion of Georgia. I mean, he’s actually been relentless and non-stop. So I don’t think we should have been surprised. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be caught off-guard by the brutality of what he has done and is continuing to do. Ukraine is a much larger country and is much harder to penetrate and dominate and the way he’s tried to do it is with heavy weaponry. It’s a different approach than what was needed for a very small country like Georgia. But we shouldn’t be surprised given his well-known ambitions of scale when it comes to Ukraine.
ESQ: So if this has been an ongoing historical conflict, how does what’s happening today differ from what’s happened previously between Russia and Ukraine?
PARAG: Essentially, there have always been different geographical locus points. So for example, with Crimea [in February and March 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently, annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine—reigniting the war between both countries] it was all about an instance of location and changes to the territorial alignment with Russia. And obviously, it was a huge shock to Ukraine. It was really the first wake-up call for them to be like: Oh my god, we’ve really been physically dismembered here. We’ve lost this historically vital territory. Yes, it was disputed [and it goes all the way back to the ’60s], but still, we would say it was like a wake-up call. Almost like a sobriety check. At the time, Ukraine didn’t really take it to heart politically in the way they should have. That was the time they should have come together as a country and been like: Okay, we need to be less corrupt and get our act together. We need to strengthen our governance. We need to reach out to the unsettled populations. We need to try to win them over. Unfortunately, Ukraine didn’t really do that. That was eight years ago now. But in a way, they were damned-if-they-did and damned-if-they-didn’t.
ESQ: Why has this war taken over headlines the way that it has? Do you think the news cycle around what’s occurring will die down eventually?
PARAG: No, this won’t die down quite frankly, because it’s in Europe and therefore it’ll retain central position in our headlines. Anything in Europe or in the West is always going to garner more attention than Syria or Palestine or the Kashmiris. That doesn’t mean our headlines [in Asia] shouldn’t focus on our issues.
As I’ve said many times before with these frozen conflicts: it’s not up to us to be waiting for America to solve the crisis in Ukraine and then to focus on the South China Sea. We [in Asia] need to solve the South China Sea. We need to solve North Korea. We need to solve Taiwan. We need to solve the Sea of Japan. These are Asian issues amongst Asian powers that should be settled by Asians. As much as I’ve been a champion of Asia’s rise, I don’t believe that Asia is mature. There’s a difference between being powerful and being mature. I don’t believe that Asia can consider itself mature, unless we can actually settle our own disputes. So, we’re not going to see Ukraine go away from the headlines anytime soon. Not by a mile. This is the real deal.
ESQ: Why don’t other ongoing conflicts occurring in regions or continents such as Africa, the Middle East, Asia and South America stay in the headlines? After all, they also impact hundreds of thousands, if not millions of lives.
PARAG: Well again, those are cyclical. Also, I would say part of it is a related argument in that it’s also our own neglect. There’s media all over Asia that could shine a spotlight on these things. The fact is that Ukraine has probably gotten more attention on Channel News Asia than the South China Sea ever did—and I wonder why that’s the case. Quite frankly, I find that appalling. I think that we need to again solve our own problems. But in any case, media visibility is not the barometer of the importance of a conflict.
ESQ: So if coverage may not always be correlated to consequence or urgency, does that mean we’re not on the brink of WWIII?
PARAG: Ukraine will not be World War III. It wasn’t ever going to be World War III, because of its geographic location. It’s a European conflict. If this were the Straits of Hormuz [between the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman] and if it was Iran seizing islands [which it very well might do—there’s another frozen conflict], and the dispute was between Iran and the United Arab Emirates—where the majority of the world’s oil flows through? Now that’s World War III material right there. We’re all watching Ukraine, and of course, it’s tragic. I would love to see it resolved. It should have never happened. But no European conflict can be World War III, because it doesn’t involve Asia.
ESQ: How are Asian powers reacting to what’s happening in Ukraine today?
PARAG: They’re currently sitting this conflict out. Be it by design or by intent, they don’t want to be caught up in it. They don’t want to be in the crossfire. It’s actually a lot of what I’ve been writing about recently—how China and India are either siding with Russia, or taking a back seat because they actually just want to focus on getting the cheap oil and gas, have the pipelines come their way, flood the Russian market with their goods and all those kinds of things.
ESQ: So at the end of the day, does Asia’s involvement in global conflicts only really come down to the economics of it all?
PARAG: In some ways. The fact is that as people, we don’t want to disrupt the resource bounty. So therefore we won’t really interrupt from an Asian perspective, because we think it’s not really our place— lest we not have access to all the things that make up our daily lives. I also think as Asians, one of the questions that we seem to be asking ourselves as we’re watching everything play out is: Where is our kind of vigour in standing up for what’s happening in our regions, as Ukraine is doing by fighting for their country? Why haven’t we been able to resolve the Kashmir conflict in how many years? Why haven’t we been able to solve the IsraelPalestine situation?
ESQ: Are Asian conflicts more inherently unresolvable in some way?
PARAG: Everything is resolvable, of course. But the key point to what you’re saying is that the economics does matter more than the politics—and actually that’s a good thing. I’ve been saying that for the past 30 years, [since the collapse of the Soviet Union] Asians have done a good job at promoting geo-economic convergence, whilst keeping geo-political rivalries suppressed. If you go back to 1991, everyone said World War III would happen in Asia. But the fact is, Asian powers have been very pragmatic in how they deal with each other. They haven’t let a World War III blow up in this region. Meanwhile, out there, the same people who are telling us that we don’t know how to manage our own disputes are fighting wars all the time. Look at the Balkans, look in the Middle East, and look at Europe. So there’s obviously a lot of hypocrisy built in. By focusing on Asians and more on the economic advantages to us, we have managed to sit out militarily from this.
“[Asian powers] are currently sitting this conflict out. Be it by design or by intent, they don’t want to be caught up in it. They don’t want to be in the crossfire.”
ESQ: Does that mean we’re coming out on top then?
PARAG: We certainly shouldn’t be thinking that we’ll have the last laugh until we resolve the tensions we also have. I think we’re in trouble as well. But it’s also a very different kind. When it comes to Europe, it’s a small region. You can’t really have these chain reactions amongst Asian conflicts, right? The geography is so vast. What’s happening in Taiwan versus Kashmir versus the South China Sea versus Japan versus North Korea doesn’t really have a lot to do with one another. One isn’t necessarily always going to lead to the explosion of the other. Whereas in Europe, you can imagine that being the case. So when it comes to the Asian conflicts, we really should focus on them one by one and not link them to each other.
ESQ: How has what’s happening in Ukraine today set the tone on how we view refugees now? Does it impact us differently, depending on where we see them displaced from?
PARAG: Asia has a lot of refugees for a lot of different reasons, and in any situation they’re treated differently. I think if you would rank them by size, the Rohingya* would be the number one by volume. Pakistan has another very grave Afghan refugee situation, and that’s been the case since the 1970s. It’s now been exacerbated by the collapse of Afghanistan. You have North Korean refugees around the region, primarily in China, and honestly it goes on and on and on. But again, these are quite disconnected from one another. Because Asia is so large, these populations get either absorbed, isolated or ignored. We don’t talk about some kind of common Asian refugee policy, because of our distance from each other. That as well as a kind of deference to each other and our sovereignty. If you look at the way the West has to approach North African, Ukrainian or Syrian refugees [to take those three examples], they pretty much impact every single country right now. Millions of Ukrainians are now fleeing to Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Germany and so forth. North African migrants and asylum seekers are seeking refuge all over Italy, Greece, Spain, France, Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and Sweden. Syrian refugees are in every single country in Europe. So just with those three examples alone, European borders are completely open and fluid, and therefore they need a regional response. In Asia, our refugee situations may be large, but they are geographically more discernible.
*The Rohingya people are a stateless Indo-Aryan ethnic group who predominantly follows Islam and resides in Myanmar’s Rakhine State. Over 740,000 were forced to flee to Bangladesh following the Rohingya Genocide in 2017
ESQ: Is what’s happening with Ukraine going to impact how we, as Asian powers, choose to operate going forward?
PARAG: In actuality, not a lot changes for us based on what’s happening in Ukraine today. Some people would like to pause and see how China is viewing this conflict and its impact on the West and whether to do the same. The fact is, China’s strategy towards Taiwan is not contingent on Ukraine. It’s misguided to think that China hasn’t already thought through what they want to do a billion times over [to the nth degree of detail] and are somehow waiting for guidance from Eurocentric powers. That’s certainly not the case.
ESQ: What does this war mean for Singapore and Singaporeans more specifically?
PARAG: Essentially, two points. We’re already seeing and going to continue to see a huge demand from Europeans to purchase passports or residency in the Caribbean islands, Dubai and elsewhere. Because they’re afraid, and they want a back-up plan in case Russia decides to explore nuclear war. You’ll have rich people from Western societies fleeing to Asia or Middle Eastern countries to get away from their war-torn strifes, which I find lamentable and sad, but it’s kind of a sign of the times.
The second point is that I’d like to see Singapore more involved in diplomatic leadership across the areas of conflict—particularly when it comes to aspects such as the Rohingya or even the South China Sea issue. I’ve written about this many times before. I completely understand that, on one hand, we want to remain neutral and we’re cautious for our own reasons—which are absolutely justified. But I’d love to see Singapore propose a couple of solutions around areas like that. After all, we hosted the Trump-Kim summit. We don’t have to solve everything, but we are facilitators. I really think Singapore is earning its place as what I call the Capital of Asia [a term first coined by Dr Khanna]. Singapore is too modest and too humble to say that, but I’ve been saying it from the day I arrived here almost 10 years ago.
“I’d like to see Singapore more involved in diplomatic leadership across the areas of conflict…after all, we hosted the Trump/Kim summit…I really think Singapore is earning its place as what I call the Capital of Asia."
ESQ: So is Singapore a role model when it comes to Asian disputes? If not, should we be?
PARAG: I very much think of Singapore as a role model in so many ways. It’s a technocratic icon and it’s arguably the best-governed country in the world. Everyone already knows this. For 20 years, I’ve been travelling around—whether it’s Saudi Arabia or African countries—and it’s always about what Singapore is doing. One of my biggest clients is the United Arab Emirates. I go there all the time, and at every possible level they all want to copy Singapore. So the most important countries in the world [large and small] all want to learn lessons from here. A lot of people say [or are used to saying] that big countries can’t learn from small countries. To this, I always reply: The largest country in the entire world, China undertook its entire process of modernisation in the last 40 years because of Singapore. How can anyone say with a straight face that big countries can’t learn from small countries, when there’s such a case study of a rising power learning from a small country? The world has a demand for 20 Singapores. We need thousands more Singaporeans to go out and to make other Singapores happen. That’s also part of being the Capital of Asia and part of being a role model.
ESQ: What’s the one lesson Asian leaders can learn from watching what’s happening with Ukraine and Russia?
PARAG: Again, how Western leaders deal with a Western crisis may be different from how we deal with an Asian crisis. It’s like I said before—countries like China aren’t going to change their behaviours towards countries like Taiwan and how those kinds of disputes will play out. We did have the Chinese Foreign Minister wanting to visit India recently to talk about kind of burying the hatchet. But again I don’t think that’s actually going to happen. Part of it is also that China doesn’t actually want to settle or make concessions, but again it’s all a part of Asians saying: You know what? Let’s keep things calm in our neighbourhood for a while and let’s not stir the pot. So I think that’s probably the primary lesson for Asian leaders for now.
ESQ: Finally, what do you think will be the ultimate resolution to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and can it only end if and when Putin is removed from power?
PARAG: I mean, Putin actually has an 83 percent popularity rating according to the most recent polling, so he’s not actually going anywhere. However, I do think there’s an end state. The most recent intelligence tells us that he really does want to conquer the whole country, exterminate its people and other such endeavours along this line. So, he’s not going to get what he originally wanted. I think that the final settlement may be a new territorial map; in which Putin does get to cement his control over the Eastern provinces, the North, the Black Sea and Crimea. The result is Ukraine may be a slightly smaller country. I think that that is definitely part-and-parcel of the long-term outcome of all of this. In Russia, the people may not be as exposed to information to know that their army was humiliated, but as far as Putin is concerned—as long as he gets what he wants through some form of territorial expansion—he’ll take it as a victory.
One important point to emphasise—you don’t really get an end to these kinds of conflicts unless you have a territorial settlement. So when you raise the question about what does Putin do next, since he’s likely to remain in power? I think the only way to prevent him from doing this again, is to have an extremely clear territorial settlement. And this is important because one of the big words that’s being used right now in the negotiations is ‘neutrality’. If we remember that Ukraine was neutral from 2008 to 2014, and it didn’t get them very much. So I don’t believe Ukraine should be neutral. I think they should give away the territory that they know they can never get back, because they don’t have a choice. Then they should actually join NATO. You could say this isn’t what you’re supposed to get out of a bloody, savage and genocidal campaign. But by doing so, they’ll be doing the one thing that they [Russia] never wanted—which was for Ukraine to join NATO. Then you can have a new Iron Curtain of sorts, and make it clear to Putin that this is going to stop here. Now, Ukrainians are actually standing up to him.
Dr Parag Khanna is the founder and managing partner of FutureMap, a data and scenario-based strategic advisory firm. He is the international bestselling author of seven books, has travelled to more than 150 countries, and holds a PhD from the London School of Economics. Find out more about him at www.paragkhanna.com.