TOKYO – “Finlandization” describes the commitment to strategic neutrality that a small country might make, in order to avoid provoking a much larger and more powerful neighbor. The term is derived from Finland’s longstanding policy of strict military non-alignment with either the Soviet Union or the West – a policy that it maintained vis-à-vis Russia after the end of the Cold War but that its recent application for NATO membership has upended. But even as Finland abandons Finlandization, many Asian countries may well be set to adopt it.
Unlike Finland and its European partners, most Asian countries have refrained from vocal or vociferous condemnations of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Of the 35 countries that abstained from the United Nations general assembly’s March 2 vote on a resolution demanding that Russia end its invasion of Ukraine, 11 were in Asia.
Two of those abstaining countries were large powers: China and India. For China, the decision to abstain may have been less about Russia, with which it signed a cooperation agreement just weeks before the invasion than about the West. China’s leaders harbor plenty of skepticism about Western values, and they fear the weaponization of Western-led international institutions. If and when China decides to invade Taiwan, it hopes to avoid the high international costs Russia has incurred over its aggression in Ukraine.
India, for its part, probably abstained because of its longstanding ties to Russia. India led the Non-Aligned Movement in the 1950s and the 1960s – a period when it also pursued Soviet-style socialist economic policies. India abandoned those policies in the early 1990s – around the same time communism was collapsing in Europe – but has continued to rely on Russia for military supplies, including warplanes and tanks. Given the importance of these supplies, India cannot afford to alienate Russia, despite the Kremlin’s increasingly close partnership with China, which has been waging a stealth war with India in the Himalayas.
The smaller abstaining countries – Bangladesh, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Mongolia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, and Vietnam – are even more likely to be replicating a version of Finlandization, reflecting pressures from Russia and China. Meanwhile, Japan and South Korea remain the West’s front line in the region, confronting threats from both powers, along with North Korea (which voted against the resolution).
US President Joe Biden is currently in Asia attempting to strengthen that front. In his meetings with South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Biden has sought to lay the groundwork for deeper cooperation, including by planning for a variety of contingencies, such as a North Korean missile attack on any of the three countries’ territories. Biden has even vowed to defend Taiwan militarily in the event of an invasion.
But Biden has held separate bilateral meetings with Yoon and Kishida. For the front line to hold, South Korea, Japan, and the US must construct a viable three-way strategy to confront the security challenges Asia faces.
Here, Yoon’s electoral victory last March offers reason for hope. Having defeated the incumbent party’s candidate, Yoon is expected to break from the foreign policy of his predecessor, Moon Jae-in. This includes abandoning Moon’s appeasement policy toward North Korea, the biggest military threat to the South, and replacing his policy of “strategic ambiguity” in the Sino-American rivalry with deeper ties to the US. In fact, during their recent meeting, Biden and Yoon affirmed the critical importance of extended deterrence in their joint policy toward the North Korean regime.
Another policy mistake Moon made was to allow South Korea’s relationship with Japan to be poisoned by historical disagreements dating to World War II. Rather than remaining weighed down by the burden of history, the leaders of South Korea, Japan, and the US must together carry the burden of peace. One hopes that Yoon understands this.
Kishida, too, is breaking from his predecessors’ policies, which embodied a gentler approach to Russia, in the hope that Russia would return to Japan the four Kuril Islands that Stalin seized at the end of WWII. Abe Shinzō – Japan’s longest-serving prime minister, whose tenure ended in 2020 – met with Russian President Vladimir Putin 27 times between 2012 and 2020, and provided Russia with substantial economic assistance.
Those efforts turned out to be for naught. Putin never came close to engaging in serious negotiations about the islands. In any case, Japan has now abandoned the enterprise. Following the invasion of Ukraine, Kishida’s administration swiftly announced that it would join the rest of the G7 in imposing strict sanctions on Russia. It has since suspended most of its economic engagement with Russia.
Both Japan and South Korea seem committed to maintaining a united front with the US and Europe in confronting Russia. That unity must be maintained – at the very least, until the voluntary Finlandization of Asia that the Ukraine war has spurred begins to be reversed.
Takatoshi Ito, a former Japanese deputy vice minister of finance, is a professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University and a senior professor at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.
By Takatoshi Ito