China and the whole of Asia Pacific, we have frequently been told over the past week, will be closely watching developments in Ukraine. Yes, of course they will – just as the rest of the world has been transfixed by this escalating crisis, which has already resulted in far too many deaths and more than 500,000 Ukrainians fleeing their homes.
The implication, however, is that in the East, there are possible parallels. What happens in Ukraine, said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, "will have an impact here as well". He was meeting with foreign ministers of "the Quad" – America, India, Japan and Australia – at the time, so it was clear he meant the Asia Pacific.
True, there are some similarities between Russia and China. Both are great powers that at one stage or another have been treated patronisingly – or far worse – mostly by western countries. China suffered the "century of humiliation" (1839-1949) when it endured military defeats and was forced into unequal treaties. And it is not only Russian President Vladimir Putin who believes that his country has been belittled and disrespected by the US, in particular, since the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Nato has advanced right up to Russia's western borders; just who could the "defensive alliance" think it needs defending against? And any map that shows the US military presence in the Asia Pacific makes China appear hemmed in by forces ready to resist what the Biden administration's recently published Indo-Pacific Strategy referred to as China's "coercion and aggression".
But it would be foolish in the extreme to press any parallels too far, and more so to view East Asia through the prism of Eastern Europe. Russian forces have surged into Ukraine, accompanied by heavy shelling, capturing some towns and attempting to take the capital, Kiev. By contrast, there is no prospect of China invading any country in Asia, and Beijing would protest furiously if anyone suggested there was.
There are certainly border disputes, some of which have turned deadly, such as the clashes with India in the Galwan Valley in 2020. Islands and huge stretches of the seas are contested by a number of countries, including China. The smaller countries in the region fear that Chinese might, and not legal processes, will eventually decide their ownership; although, it is worth noting that China has a long history of peacefully resolving territorial issues with adjacent countries on the Asian mainland.
What the so-called parallels are really about, however, is Taiwan. This is a very different situation to Ukraine, an internationally recognised state whose territorial integrity and political independence were guaranteed by the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, signed by the US, the UK and, somewhat ironically, by Russia as well.
Taiwan, on the other hand, is viewed by China as a renegade province. Nearly all countries officially recognise or respect one form or another of the "One China" policy, and do not acknowledge Taiwan as an independent state. The wishes of the island's inhabitants should certainly be taken into account, but the logic of saying that Taiwan and the mainland constitute "One China" points only one way: towards eventually reuniting. If that is the case, then Chinese President Xi Jinping's words in October of last year – "reunification through a peaceful manner is the most in line with the overall interest of the Chinese nation, including Taiwan compatriots" – should not be seen as an unreasonable long-term goal.
The real lesson from the tragic events in Ukraine is this: don't back a country, in this case Russia, that didn't have to be an adversary, into a corner, and then refuse to give an inch. This is in no way to excuse Moscow's actions, which could create a humanitarian catastrophe. But giving assurances that Ukraine would not become a member of Nato, which could have avoided this conflagration, would not have been appeasement.
Firstly, prior to the invasion, western leaders had privately conceded that the country had no pathway to joining Nato. Why couldn't they just have said so publicly? Secondly, as far back as 1998, Nato expansion in the former Eastern Bloc was being described by wiser heads such as George Kennan, the architect of US containment policy towards the Soviet Union, as "a tragic mistake". He said: "There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else."
What we should learn from the current devastation is caution. Caution about demonising a country with a great culture and history. Caution about dismissing out of hand its sense of its place in the world and its deeply held beliefs about its own legitimate security concerns. Caution about ramping up talk of military conflict in a way that makes it seem inevitable, contributing to a momentum that may make it so.
China says it respects the sovereignty of countries around the world, and only earlier this week, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said his country was willing to work with the G7's "Build Back Better" plan and that the US was welcome to join Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative. Both are excellent ideas that western leaders should take up.
It is far from too late to try to reach a much better modus vivendi between China and the US, which is what most people in the region earnestly desire. But drawing wrong and dangerously simplistic parallels between what is happening in Ukraine and what could happen in East Asia could have the opposite effect.
Western commentators have woken up to the reality of war because it is happening in a European country, where in contrast to Iraq or Afghanistan, people are apparently "relatively civilised", as one CBS correspondent ignorantly put it.
Asia has a far longer history of civilisation. Its peoples may not seem "so like us" to the western columnist who described the Ukrainians as such, but they don't want war either. This invasion may be down to Mr Putin's judgement, but it doesn't alter the fact that the West made a terrible mistake in turning Russia into an enemy when it could have been a friend. American and European leaders should think far more carefully about how they engage with the Asia Pacific, and China especially. Another mistake could be far more costly – and just as avoidable.