How Ukraine’s Invasion Could Transform Asia’s Nuclear Landscape

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Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear slashes in Ukraine, which created political ripples in Europe, sparked a much larger debate about the importance of atomic weapons in deterring Chinese expansionism. For those facing Chinese anger in Asia, it is not difficult to accept the proposition that Russia would have thought twice about invading Ukraine if Kiev had nuclear weapons.

In a landmark statement last week, former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called for a national debate about welcoming US nuclear weapons on Japanese soil. In South Korea, which elects its president this week, frontrunner Yoon Suk-yeol has spoken of bolstering Seoul’s nuclear deterrent against Pyongyang and Beijing. Taiwan, which is in the crosshairs of President Xi Jinping’s regional strategy, is reportedly developing a nuclear-powered submarine that could provide some deterrence against an invading Chinese force. Australia, which is working with the UK and the US to build nuclear-powered submarines, is accelerating the project after the invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s public order to his generals in late February to put Russian nuclear forces on high alert shortly after launching his invasion of Ukraine was a message to the United States and NATO to stay in outside Ukraine. Putin, however, was preaching to converts. After all, Washington had made it clear that it had no intention of fighting Putin’s armies on Russia’s borders. The threat of nuclear escalation was very much on the minds of NATO military planners when the alliance refused to be drawn into a firefight with Russia in Ukraine. No wonder President Joe Biden didn’t respond to Putin’s nuclear escalation by putting US nuclear forces on high alert.

One could argue that Washington was unimpressed with Putin’s nuclear threat because Russia is also aware of the dangers of nuclear escalation. Moscow is also aware that there are two nuclear powers in Europe: Britain and France. Although the British and French arsenals are modest, they figure in Moscow’s nuclear assessments. Russia is also aware of “nuclear sharing” agreements between the United States and some European allies – Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Within this framework, the European allies harbor American nuclear weapons on their soil and authorize their armed forces to launch American nuclear weapons on Russia. Nuclear sharing also involves ongoing consultations on nuclear doctrine and planning for nuclear operations.

Europe’s immediate objective, in the wake of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, is not nuclear weapons but the strengthening of conventional deterrence to stop Putin’s adventurism on the continent. The United States and its allies are also waging a “hybrid war” that strengthens Ukrainian resistance against Russian armed forces and increases the military, economic and political costs of Moscow’s aggression.

Putin has certainly shaken Europe out of its extended geopolitical holidays and is forcing it to devote more resources to defending Europe and strengthening the continent’s unity against Russia. Nothing illustrates the radical change in the European mood than the German decision to abandon its entrenched pacifism and embark on a path of rearmament.

In Asia, similar trends are emerging. The widely discussed prospect of China emulating Russia and invading Taiwan has begun to focus the minds of Asian leaders. But unlike Europe, Asia has been warned of the dangers of great power chauvinism and territorial expansionism. After all, China had nibbled away at the territories of its neighbours, whether in the South China Sea or the great Himalayas. China broke its commitments on Hong Kong and forcibly absorbed it.

The twin developments of the past month have only heightened those concerns. One was the unveiling of a “limitless alliance” between Russia and China at a summit meeting in Beijing on February 4. Many in Asia, including India, continue to hope that Russia will play an independent role in the region. But the summit saw an unprecedented commitment from both sides to support each other. As Putin becomes increasingly dependent on China, Russia is bound to support Xi Jinping’s ambitions in Asia.

Taiwan is far more important to Asian (and global) security than Ukraine is to Europe. Taiwan sits in the heart of the Western Pacific and straddles the line of maritime communication in the most dynamic economic arena in the world. It is the main source of silicon chips for the world. When China conquers Taiwan, it will radically transform the geopolitics of Asia. No one understands this better than Shinzo Abe. After the invasions of Ukraine, he expressed what was most important in the minds of many in Asia. At the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Abe called for an unambiguous American commitment to defend Taiwan. Current US policy does not explicitly state that its armed forces will come to the aid of Taiwan if attacked by China. Abe also called for a new debate in Japan on possible “nuclear sharing agreements with the United States”. Abe, of course, is keenly aware of the ingrained “nuclear allergy” in Japan. But he calls for a frank debate to deal with the changing Asian and global security environment after Ukraine. Part of the debate is that nuclear weapons remain the greatest deterrent, especially against a vastly superior adversary.

Asian military planners know that Ukraine agreed in 1994 to give up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union in exchange for guarantees over Kiev’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Obviously, these legal safeguards do not replace nuclear weapons.

In the past, all of China’s East Asian neighbors have played with the development of independent nuclear arsenals. The United States actively discouraged Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan from giving up nuclear weapons in exchange for American security commitments, including shelter from the American “nuclear umbrella.” There is growing concern in the region about whether the US nuclear umbrella or so-called extended deterrence will work against China’s rapidly growing military might and nuclear clout.

It is in this context that China’s eastern neighbors are reviewing the nuclear option. Although Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have significant technological capabilities, developing a nuclear arsenal would be the politically riskiest last option. For now, their goal is to strengthen the military alliance with the United States and to strengthen national defense capabilities, including advanced missile systems.

On the nuclear front, the debate in Japan and South Korea centers on possible nuclear sharing agreements with the United States. In Taiwan and Australia, the focus is on the development of nuclear-powered submarines. The United States is also debating the deployment of new strategic weapons systems in Asia that could encourage China to pause before trying to emulate Russia’s Ukrainian adventure. One way or another, Russia’s war in Ukraine is set to transform the Asian nuclear landscape.

This column first appeared in the March 8, 2022 print edition under the title “Revisiting Deterrence in Asia”. The author is a senior research fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and international affairs editor for The Indian Express.

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