The Ukraine War and Security in East Asia

Narushige Michishita

This paper attempts to assess the impacts of the Ukraine war on Security in East Asia, focusing on the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. Specifically, significant impacts will be distinguished as positive or negative and will be discussed under three headings: trans-regional issues, the Korean Peninsula, and the Taiwan Strait.

This paper aims to create a certain consensus in the Japanese security community on the impact assessment of the Ukraine war. For this reason, it ventures to distinctly categorize such elements as hard to assess as either positive or negative. The present author hopes that this will facilitate discussion among SSDP associates and help them better understand the current topic. By way of stimulating debates, this paper first enumerates negative elements as "bad news" and then positive elements as "good news."

A strategy is always paradoxical, and failure often leads to success or vice versa. Therefore, the following assessments are tentative ones as of writing this (May 2022) and are subject to change in the future.

1. Trans-Regional Issues

(1) Bad News

Dictators' Ability of Judgment

The most horrid implication of the Ukraine war for East Asian security is that the personal judgment of a leader with dictatorial power played a central role in the ongoing development of the current war. Given the Korean Peninsula situation, the importance of this lesson is evident. A simple comparison may reveal several similarities between Putin and Kim Jong-un. First, both leaders have thoroughly suppressed domestic opposition and acquired such a position allowing them almost a free hand to implement their policies. Second, both leaders have exerted military force ignoring international opinion, and have used the threat of military force as a policy tool. Lastly, both leaders have been considered adept at balancing their audacious military and diplomatic actions and self-restraint without trespassing the red line. Though not going so far as Putin and Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping has likewise been dictatorial and has used force to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas while avoiding a full-scale military confrontation.

However, the Ukraine war has demonstrated that a leader who appeared to be rational could make irrational decisions and take actions tragic not only for his own but also for other countries. The countries concerned will have to delve into the persons of the North Korean and Chinese leaders by various means to probe their mode of thinking and behavior, psychological and state of health, and to explore means to restrain their behavior. To this end, at least three issues will need to be studied. The first is a study of the particular circumstance that would lead autocratic leaders to resort to the use of force. Since extensive research on the causes of the Ukraine war has already been underway, it is now necessary to add to such research the findings of regional studies in order to advance specific arguments. Apart from the cogency of such explanations as "NATO's eastward expansion caused the Ukraine war," if Putin felt that NATO's eastward expansion made him lose face, such feelings of his might have contributed to the outbreak of the ongoing war. This is also a theme demanding some research.

Second, research into mistakes committed by autocratic leaders. Since Putin, Kim Jong-un, and Xi Jinping have all been top leaders for a considerable time, a tolerable number of examples may be available. For instance, Kim Jong-un made an apparent misstep on the occasion of the 2019 Hanoi summit: he trumpeted the event before his departure for the Vietnamese capital and put himself at a disadvantageous position in the negotiations by raising expectations at home. This episode exposed that Kim Jong-un was unaccustomed to negotiating.

Third, it is also necessary to study how to get a dictatorial leader to make concessions while allowing him to save face. A decisive situation is about to arise, where Putin's fate may depend on the outcome of the Ukraine war. How to get him to accept peace is literally a crucial question. In what situation will a leader of a country think that he has lost face? This is a question related to the culture and political environment of the country. This theme also deserves some interdisciplinary research.

The Success of the "Ukrainian Model"

In the Ukraine war, Western countries have taken the approach of achieving the goal of defending a friendly nation without engaging in direct military intervention. In peacetime, this approach comprises capacity building through arms support, military training, and cybersecurity support, while in wartime, it focuses on arms support and intelligence provision. In addition, economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure would be mobilized against the aggressor country to reduce its ability to continue warfare. This approach to be named a "Ukrainian model" is suitable for balancing the national interests and commitments of the countries involved and is, as a result, highly sustainable. This is why international support for Ukraine is maintained at a consistently high level as of May 2022.

On the other hand, the success of the "Ukraine model" raises a concern about future US security commitments to the Indo-Pacific region. Unlike the case of Ukraine, the United States maintains direct military commitments to its allies and friends in Asia. However, if the "Ukraine model" proved to be practical, this could amplify in America the public's voice to recommend "a defense without direct US military involvement." The direction of encouraging allies and friends to further defense efforts while avoiding direct US military involvement coincides with the views of former President Trump. His opinions did not gain widespread support in the United States because Trump was an unstable leader. Yet, if a more stable leader comes up with a similar argument, such a discourse could gain substantial support and destabilize US commitments to the security of the Korean Peninsula and Taiwan.

(2) Good News

Increasing Awareness of Nuclear Threats

Russia's insinuation of the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war has generated a world-wide trend to seriously consider the potential use of such weapons and how to address nuclear intimidation. The fact that the discussion now involves not only experts but also citizens has had an eminently positive effect on the future security of East Asia.

Even before Russia hinted at using nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war, there were earnest discussions among experts about the possibility of nuclear use and threats with nuclear weapons. The concept of Russia's "escalation deterrence" strategy now widely known to the public, and the US nuclear posture, which has vacillated under US administrations from Obama to Biden, were already discussed among many experts. Some argue that the Ukraine war has increased the likelihood that nuclear weapons will be put to actual use or be used as a tool of intimidation. However, such a possibility had been already noted before the war. The Ukraine war has not enhanced the role of nuclear weapons but confirmed their enhanced role. Although their role had expanded even before the Ukraine war, it was not necessarily noted by many. The Ukrainian war has made that fact widely known and shared.

Thus, such topics as the use of nuclear weapons, nuclear strategy, and the issues of nuclear deterrence and extended deterrence have come to be discussed not only by a limited number of experts but also by average citizens. Because of their destructive power, nuclear weapons are not easy to use, and therefore, in times of crisis or war, they tend to function exclusively through their effects on human psychology. In recent years, the striking development of social media has made it impossible for state elites to monopolize information, and the psychological effects of nuclear threats in times of crisis and war are likely to be amplified by new media. Therefore, it is also essential for state elites, experts, and average citizens to understand the role of nuclear weapons as a means of intimidation and their limitations, if we want to reduce the effect of nuclear intimidation at a time of crisis and war. If, for example, average citizens of a country intimidated by nuclear weapons were able to reason in the following way, the usefulness of nuclear weapons as a means of intimidation would be significantly undermined: "Since hurdles for the actual use of nukes are high, this action of our antagonist may be an intimidation designed to deter US military intervention." "If North Korea used nukes against Japan, the United States would retaliate agisnt it with nukes in some way or another. Therefore, North Korea may pose an ostensible threat by brandishing nukes, but it is unlikely that the North will attack Japan with them."

It is difficult here to make a clear judgment as to in which case nuclear weapons are more useful --- Ukraine or East Asia. Factors that increase the usefulness of nuclear weapons in East Asia include: 1) Nuclear weapons are easier to use at sea, where the risk of collateral damage is less. Since a greater portion of US forces in East Asia is deployed at sea, they are vulnerable to nuclear attack, whereas North Korean and Chinese forces are mainly ground forces. 2) North Korea and China possess intermediate-range nuclear weapons, while the United States does not. 3) North Korea is inferior to the United States and South Korea in conventional forces; therefore, it has a high incentive to use nuclear weapons. In relation to 3), North Korea announced in 2017 that its Strategic Force Commander was working on a plan for an encircling fire on Guam. It is also noteworthy that in April of this year, Kim Yo-jong stated, "In a war situation... our nuclear combat arms will be mobilized to seize the initiative in the early stages of the war, discourage the opponent's will to war, prevent a prolonged war, and preserve our military strength." A nuclear use scenario that once attracted attention during the Cold War was that the Soviet Union could detonate tactical nuclear weapons at sea to hinder Japan's assistance to the United States. An analogous scenario is once again taking on reality.

Conversely, among factors curbing the utility of nuclear weapons in East Asia are 1) at present, the US nuclear capabilities are overwhelmingly superior to those of North Korea and China; 2) China would need to conduct a landing operation using surface vessels to occupy Taiwan, but such action will become an easy target for US tactical nuclear weapons; and 3) in East Asia, due to the existence of the USFK and USFJ, it would be much harder for China to prevent US military intervention through the use or threat of nuclear weapons than for Russia to attempt to prevent NATO intervention in the Ukraine war. In any case, these and other factors must be taken into account when considering what role nuclear weapons will play in the future security of East Asia.

Limitations of Hybrid Warfare

The Ukraine war has revealed that hybrid warfare thought to be Russia's and China's forte, is not necessarily favorable to them. It is, at present, difficult to distinguish the true causes of Ukraine's successes and Russia's failures. But when it comes to cyberwarfare, Ukraine has obviously strengthened its cybersecurity countermeasures with the support of NATO countries, achieving substantial results. Ukraine learned much from the NotPetya malware attack that the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU) launched in 2017, causing severe damage to Ukraine. This suggests that 1) cyber security countermeasures, if steadily implemented, would become quite effective in a relatively short period like five years, and 2) Russia and China alarmed their adversaries through active cyber attacks during peacetime, thus inviting negative consequences upon themselves in a time of war.

2. Korean Peninsula

(1) Bad News

Russia's Intensified Support for North Korea

A more immediate, short-term impact of the Ukraine war would take the form of Russia's intensified support for North Korea. In March of this year, North Korea opposed a UN resolution condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine (five against: Russia, Belarus, Syria, North Korea, and Eritrea). It can be surmised that North Korea supports Russia in expectation of or in return for a promise for some quid pro quo. Reportedly, Russian Defense Minister Shoigu visited China and North Korea in March and asked them to provide ammunition and missiles, to which North Korea agreed.

Russia will survive the Ukraine war but weakened militarily and economically and will have no choice but to strengthen its ties with North Korea to compensate for its disadvantageous military balance with the West and its diplomatic isolation. North Korea would also benefit from military, economic, and diplomatic Russian support. Especially an embargo on Russian coal and oil will create a large surplus of these resources; access to such surplus resources would benefit North Korea to a great measure.

The expected recession in Russia would adversely affect North Korea's foreign currency earnings from its workers in the country. An estimate says that about 100,000 North Korean workers overseas earn approximately $500 million a year. About 30,000 of them seem to work in Russia; a simple calculation would yield an income of $150 million. Overall, North Korea will fare well despite reductions in the incomes of their workers in Russia.

On the diplomatic front, when in May 2022, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution to strengthen sanctions against North Korea in response to the country's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Russia and China exercised their veto rights and rejected the resolution. It was the first time that a draft resolution on sanctions against North Korea was vetoed. Similarly, Russia and North Korea will likely continue to help each other. For the time being, North Korea will be able to conduct its nuclear and missile tests without worrying about the possibility of tougher sanctions by the United Nations.

Lowered Hurdles for North Korea's Military Provocations

In recent years there have been concerns about a "paradox of stability and instability" that North Korea's increased nuclear and missile capabilities would raise a likelihood that the North would consider a limited war as a realistic option. This refers to the phenomenon that as both North Korea and the United States and South Korea come to attain a certain level of nuclear and missile capabilities, mutual deterrence will work to reduce the likelihood of a full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula, whereas the assumption that "the possibility of escalation into a full-scale conflict is low" will make it easier for North Korea to launch a limited attack on South Korea.

Thus, concerns have risen about the occurrence of limited armed attacks by North Korea, resulting in warfare between the two Koreas. The outbreak of the Ukraine war is feared to lower barriers for the limited use of force. There is an imaginable risk scenario that North Korea will fire artillery near Seoul; South Korea will retaliate by likewise firing artillery back into North Korea. If the "paradox of stability and instability" works, such military engagement will not escalate. But the risk of escalation cannot be entirely excluded but demands persistent attention.

(2) Good News

Significance of US Military Presence and Offensive Capabilities: Difference between Ukraine and South Korea

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised security concerns in South Korea exposed to military threats from North Korea. Analogous to the relationship between Ukraine and Russia, North and South Korea share a land border; North Korea resembles Russia as they possess numerous artillery guns, rocket launchers, and missiles. According to the United Nations, the death toll of Ukrainian civilians reached at least 3,974 as of May 25, 2022; the actual number of deaths are estimated to be considerably larger than this figure. This is bad news for South Korea, menaced by North Korea's artillery guns and rocket launchers.

South Korea differs from Ukraine in that it possesses a strong counterattack capability. Specifically, South Korea has an impressive array of fighter-bombers (30 F-4s, 162 F-16s, 59 F-15s, 36 F-35s, and 60 FA-50s), as well as a total of more than 1,000 missiles, including ballistic missiles Hyunmoo-2 (range 300 km+) and cruise missiles Hyunmoo-3 (range 500 to 1,500 km) --- on top of counter-fire batteries capable of destroying North Korean artillery and rockets, and ballistic radars. Furthermore, South Korea plans to deploy a total of 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles by 2022, which, if realized, would reportedly enable the country to eliminate 70% of North Korea's missile and long-range artillery capabilities in 24 hours. Development of a "South Korean Iron Dome" to counter North Korea's long-range artillery will be completed in 2029 and will become operational around 2035. Thus, in the event of a North Korean attack, South Korea would be able to conduct a mighty counterattack operation. Compared to Ukraine, South Korea has far more reliable deterrent and response capabilities.

3. Taiwan Strait

(1) Bad News

Emergence of a "New Axis of Evil"

The Ukraine war has strengthened solidarity between China, Russia, and North Korea. An "Axis of Evil 2.0" emerging, as a result, weighs on Taiwan's security. Although North Korea is making progress in its nuclear and missile development, its overall national strength is ebbing due to sanctions, Coronavirus infections, natural disasters, etc. Russia's national strength will also likely decline significantly due to the Ukraine war. On the other hand, China's influence over North Korea and Russia will increase; China will capitalize on this situation to utilize North Korea and Russia as instruments for its military and foreign policy.

If a China-Taiwan conflict occurs in the Taiwan Strait under the conditions of China's increasing influence over North Korea and Russia, North Korea may create a crisis in the Korean Peninsula while Russia may increase tensions in the Northwest Pacific, thereby creating a situation in which the United States and Japan will be forced to respond simultaneously on three fronts. NATO is fundamentally an alliance to respond to a single threat, Russia, whereas the Japan-US alliance must keep an eye on the three countries: Russia, North Korea, and China. Russia's threats in the Far East are limited compared to threats from North Korea and China. Nevertheless, if China, Russia, and North Korea jointly forge an "Axis of Evil 2.0" and if the risk of horizontal escalation increases in a Taiwan Strait contingency, this will bring about negative consequences for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

(2) Good News

Strengthening US-Japan Commitment to Taiwan's Defense

At the May 23 Japan-US Summit meeting, the two leaders reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, stating that they are "an indispensable element in security and prosperity in the international community." In addition, in a joint news conference, the US president was asked if he was willing to get involved militarily to defend Taiwan. "Yes," he replied, adding that "it's a commitment we made." Japan has so far asked the United States to clarify its position on the defense of Taiwan; President Biden has this time demonstrated a strong will to defend Taiwan.

There are pros and cons to President Biden's statement; there are concerns that it may further harden China's attitude. For both Japan and the United States, the risk of getting involved in a China-Taiwan conflict has increased. Many also apprehend the risk that Taiwan may neglect its defense efforts helped by the strengthened US-Japan commitments or that discourses favoring "Taiwan's independence" may spread. Unless these paradoxical results actually come out, the strengthening of commitment of both Japan and the United States, especially that of the United States, to Taiwan's defense can be deemed positive.

However, it should be noted that after the outbreak of the Ukraine war, more Twainese citizens have come to downplay the possibility of US military intervention in a Taiwan Strait dispute. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Taiwanese Public Opinion Foundation, answering the question: "If China attacked Taiwan, would the United States deploy troops to defend Taiwan?" 65.0% of respondents said "yes" and 28.5% "no" as of September 2021, whereas as of April 2022, 36.3% of respondents said "yes" and 53.8% "no." 1 This reversal suggests that the Ukraine war has made the Taiwanese more skeptical of the US military commitment. The present author believes that these perceptions may rather urge Taiwan to improve its defense capabilities; this trend may also serve as a positive factor in realizing peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.

Strengthening Taiwan's Defense Strategy

The outcome of the Ukraine war and the clarified US commitment to the war may affect Taiwan's defense strategy. Currently, a tug-of-war is underway over Taiwan's defense strategy between the "Overall Defense Concept," which seeks to strengthen Taiwan's deterrence and response capabilities by adopting an asymmetric response to Chinese threats, and a more traditional symmetric strategy. On the assumption that the military balance in the Taiwan Strait will continue to deteriorate due to China's military buildup, the "Overall Defense Concept" aims to frustrate a full-scale Chinese invasion of Taiwan by such means as the use of geographical advantages and civilian infrastructures, alongside the improvement of asymmetric warfare capabilities. Militarily, an emphasis is placed on maritime denial by missile boats in the adjacent waters around Taiwan and on the destruction of Chinese forces in Taiwan's coastal areas by using mines, firearms, and missiles. Taiwan's FY2022 defense budget focuses on anti-ship cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles, the 500-ton Tuo Chiang-class corvettes, and ground-based Harpoon anti-ship missiles. 2 The "Overall Defense Concept" is called "Fortress Taiwan" by the US Department of Defense. The US Congress pledged to Taiwan an enormous amount of support to realize it. The Biden administration has already publicized arms sales to Taiwan, including M109A6 155mm self-propelled howitzers. Taiwan is also seeking the purchase of the M139 Air Volcano Mine system. 3

Meanwhile, the mainstream faction of the Taiwanese military and others advocate more traditional defense force development and defense strategies, taking the lead in discussions about national defense. Behind their opinions in favor of traditional defense force development and defense strategies are the beliefs that 1) defense force development focused on asymmetric warfare capabilities will promote Taiwan's dependence on the United States and reduce its autonomy; 2) as a result, Taiwan will remain without the capability to attack mainland China, and 3) there are limitations in addressing gray-zone situations. Taiwan is improving its symmetrical warfare capabilities, including long-range surface-to-surface missiles, as well.

At this point in time, the "lessons" from the Ukraine war are not manifest. The success of Ukraine's response in the early stages of the war appears to suggest the effectiveness of asymmetric strategies like the "Overall Defense Concept." In the Taiwan Strait contingency, too, if Taiwan does not surrender in a short time but carries on defensive operations until the United States and Japan become ready for rescue, a situation similar to one that we are now witnessing in Ukraine will evolve. In this regard, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Millie stated, "The best defense of Taiwan is done by the Taiwanese. We can certainly help them. This is being done in Ukraine, for example, and I think there are a lot of lessons that are coming out of the Ukraine (sic) that China is taking very, very seriously." "… the best deterrent is to make sure that deterrent (sic) by denial, to make sure that the Chinese know that if they were to attack Taiwan, it is a very, very difficult objective to take." However, looking at the battle in eastern Ukraine, the Ukrainian side, which lacks offensive capabilities, is forced to fight mainly on the defensive and to suffer heavy civilian casualties. If China, unlike Russia, adopts a long-term strategy of exerting constant pressure in peacetime to mentally exhaust the Taiwanese people, then the effectiveness of a denial approach may be questionable.

(Vice President, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

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