Written by Irvin Studin

Belarus needs an out. And Asia – of all the continents – is best placed to engineer and negotiate that out. But can it? Does it know how? Does it have the strategic vision, diplomatic confidence and sense of tactical opportunity to play at this level?

Three scenarios present themselves over the coming few weeks, as the impasse in Minsk between the government and protesters consolidates. This is, as I have stressed before, an impasse not over a single election but rather over the very post-Soviet problem of succession.

In the first scenario, President Alexander Lukashenko resigns under the pressure of protests combined with heat and suggestion from one or more of Moscow, Brussels, Paris and Berlin.

In the second scenario – in my judgment, more probable – the authorities in Minsk are able to crush or, more accurately, exhaust the protests. Lukashenko governs for another year or two, but with diminished confidence and legitimacy. A new round of protests resumes before long.

Each of these scenarios portends a significant degree of chaos and general ungovernability in little Belarus for any foreseeable future. This chaos threatens to destabilise not only neighbouring Ukraine, Russia and the entire European Union, but also connected geopolitical theatres in the Middle East as well as East and South Asia.
Only heroic diplomacy – the third scenario – can save the day.

Russia may well supply it, but it is compromised by being properly non-neutral in this crisis, as its interest is generally in favour of continuity in Belarusian governance (with or without Lukashenko as such in charge) and President Vladimir Putin suffers from his own succession challenge. Still, Moscow has been far more prolific in international diplomacy than either Washington or Beijing over the past half decade, hosting major diplomatic and mediation forums and processes related to several conflicts in the Middle East, Africa and the former Soviet space.

Washington, of course, could also supply this diplomacy. Despite its strategic capriciousness and apparent retreat from global intervention, it was the United States that lubricated the recent formalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Yet Washington, like Moscow, is too tendentious (if not radicalised) in its positioning on the former Soviet space to be of great diplomatic utility in resolving the Belarusian pickle, which may soon hold hostage the stability of several continents and geopolitical theatres.

What about Europe? Apart from young President Emmanuel Macron in France, there is not a single leader on the Old Continent with the requisite political chutzpah and analytical sangfroid to intervene credibly in the Belarusian conflict. Macron has been a passe-partout in half a dozen conflicts around the world, yet he and his team have nary been successful in bringing to a conclusive close any major international diplomatic compact.

This leaves Asia. Where are the Asian giants of the post-pandemic world – China, India, Japan, South Korea or even Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore? Answer: in terms of diplomatic achievements of global moment, nowhere thus far.

If the coronavirus pandemic has very paradoxically ushered in the start of the Asian century, then it is also true that Asian diplomacy, beyond strictly economic transactions related to international trade and investment, remains largely local – regional at best, parochial at worst.

Beijing developed the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and drove the Belt and Road Initiative, but it has yet to save the day in any modern international conflict of consequence. New Delhi, too, seems diplomatically uninterested in the world beyond South Asia and parts of Central and Southeast Asia.

When the Institute for 21st Century Questions, which I head, proposed an Indian-led peacekeeping algorithm for solving the Ukraine crisis back in 2014-15 (one eventually accepted as dominant by Ukraine, Russia, China and Canada), the Indian reaction showed intellectual appreciation of the algorithm but, at core, a deep lack of official confidence in Delhi’s capacity to play (or, more precisely, lead) at such a strategic level – that is, at the intersection of great powers like Russia, the US and the EU.

Singapore, true, has played the role of diplomatic and discussion hub for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and many East-West discussions, including recent US-North Korean nuclear negotiations. Malaysia brokered an important domestic peace in the Philippines a few years ago. And Seoul has been essential in defusing near-war rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang.

But now the world needs leading Asian states to step up more than ever. Diplomatic intervention in Belarus would, in my humble submission, be well received by dint of Asian neutrality in the post-Soviet space – even if it would surprise (which also has its reputational merits).

What would an Asian-engineered exit from crisis look like in Belarus? Answer: it must secure a legitimate, safe, stable and well-resourced succession for President Lukashenko, the Belarusian state and Belarusian society. But the intervention cannot stop there, given the connections between the Belarus situation and other theatres.

It must therefore aim to finally resolve the Donbass conflict, with Asian peacekeepers packaged in a larger compact that restabilises Ukraine constitutionally and economically, while connecting Russia and the Eurasian Economic Union – very much including Belarus – to the EU via any number of “interstitial” mechanisms like a special economic zone in Ukraine’s southeast.

Of course, the window for resolution of the Ukraine conflict has by now effectively closed – which makes a sustainable Belarus solution all the more improbable. The intensification of the stand-off between Washington and Beijing, too, has only intensified during the Covid-19 period. All of this means that Asian diplomatic intervention would come far later than it should, at a time when the world’s conflicts are more wicked, more entrenched and more intertwined than at any point over the past 30 years.

Can one or more Asian capitals play at this level of international choreography and complexity? Let’s see. They may be saving themselves in the process, and the world along with themselves. They may as such make the Asian century a long one – or, in failure or reticence, a short one.

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