Ukraine Has Asia Thinking About War

The return of major conflict is leading Asian countries to boost their militaries.

By , a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and the managing editor of Fulcrum.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol dines with Maj. Gen. David Lesperance, commander of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, and other soldiers at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on April 7.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol dines with Maj. Gen. David Lesperance, commander of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, and other soldiers at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on April 7.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol dines with Maj. Gen. David Lesperance, commander of the U.S. 2nd Infantry Division, and other soldiers at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, on April 7. Diana Faulve - U.S. Army via Getty Images

The Russian invasion of Ukraine—with its destruction of cities and atrocities against civilians—has forced much of the world to relearn the primacy of hard power. As Hal Brands recently wrote in Bloomberg, Russian President Vladmir Putin has shattered a tenet of the post-Cold War mindset: that major, violent conflict had become passe.

The war in Ukraine also upended the widespread perception that the Indo-Pacific—which American scholar Aaron Friedberg once called the “cockpit of great power conflict”—was most at risk of destabilizing armed conflict. Europe, with its thick web of institutions, was seen as a generally safer place, notwithstanding Russia’s occasional land grabs and fanning of conflicts, which did not much affect the balance of power before now. Compared with Europe, the Indo-Pacific is an even more dangerous place, with no peace- or security-enhancing institutions on the scale of the European Union or NATO; the convergence of seven of the world’s top militaries (those of the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the two Koreas); and several unstable hot spots, including the South China Sea, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands.

Even before the Russia-Ukraine war, experts had already observed that the military instruments of statecraft, which had been diminished after the end of the Cold War, were making a comeback in Asia. While there has been much attention given to geoeconomics and the evolution of regional institutions, there has been a parallel tendency—much as there was in Europe—to underestimate the importance of the role played by military power in the region’s dynamics.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine—with its destruction of cities and atrocities against civilians—has forced much of the world to relearn the primacy of hard power. As Hal Brands recently wrote in Bloomberg, Russian President Vladmir Putin has shattered a tenet of the post-Cold War mindset: that major, violent conflict had become passe.

The war in Ukraine also upended the widespread perception that the Indo-Pacific—which American scholar Aaron Friedberg once called the “cockpit of great power conflict”—was most at risk of destabilizing armed conflict. Europe, with its thick web of institutions, was seen as a generally safer place, notwithstanding Russia’s occasional land grabs and fanning of conflicts, which did not much affect the balance of power before now. Compared with Europe, the Indo-Pacific is an even more dangerous place, with no peace- or security-enhancing institutions on the scale of the European Union or NATO; the convergence of seven of the world’s top militaries (those of the United States, China, India, Japan, Russia, and the two Koreas); and several unstable hot spots, including the South China Sea, Taiwan, the Korean Peninsula, and the Senkaku (or Diaoyu) Islands.

Even before the Russia-Ukraine war, experts had already observed that the military instruments of statecraft, which had been diminished after the end of the Cold War, were making a comeback in Asia. While there has been much attention given to geoeconomics and the evolution of regional institutions, there has been a parallel tendency—much as there was in Europe—to underestimate the importance of the role played by military power in the region’s dynamics.

That is now changing. Already, the Russia-Ukraine war is causing many Asian countries to reappraise their defense requirements. Formal U.S. treaty allies such as Japan and South Korea have duly noted Washington’s refusal to antagonize Russia, despite the egregiousness of the invasion and Russia’s flagrant violation of the security assurances given to Ukraine by the United States, Britain, and Russia in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. As viewed from Seoul and Tokyo, it looks as if U.S. fears of escalation could supersede obligations to defend a treaty ally, such as a NATO member, Japan, or South Korea. If the driving fear in Western capitals is escalation, why should they be any less reluctant to defend a treaty ally?

Even before the Russia-Ukraine war, Japan had already raised defense spending 10 years in a row, driven by fears of China’s rapid military expansion and North Korea’s nuclear program. Now, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has resurrected an old debate by suggesting Japan consider hosting U.S. nuclear weapons on Japanese soil—similar to Germany’s nuclear-sharing arrangements with the United States. His argument: Ukraine’s renunciation of nuclear weapons in 1994 left it vulnerable to a more powerful, revisionist neighbor.

Seoul’s reassessment of its defense posture reflects a growing appetite in South Korea for nuclear weapons.

Abe’s suggestion was rapidly shot down by his successor, Fumio Kishida, but has found some support in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Tatsuo Fukuda, chair of the LDP’s General Council, the party’s decision-making body, said the discussion “should not be avoided.” The LDP’s policy chief, Sanae Takaichi, said discussion about the country’s so far ironclad principle of not introducing nuclear weapons into Japan should “not be suppressed.” Outside of the LDP, some conservative opposition parties want to table the nuclear option as well.

In South Korea, too, policymakers are concerned about whether they can still depend on the United States’ nuclear shield. President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol has pledged to strengthen Seoul’s alliance with Washington and is seeking to develop capabilities for preemptive strikes. Defense Minister Suh Wook has said South Korea can “accurately and swiftly” conduct such strikes against North Korean missile launch pads. Yoon is reportedly poised to ask Washington to return U.S. nuclear weapons to South Korea, which were withdrawn in 1991. Other options include asking Washington for the deployment of nuclear bombers and submarines to South Korea. Yoon has also called for additional anti-ballistic missile defense systems to be stationed in South Korea (a step that has provoked Chinese ire in the past) and the resumption of full-scale biannual U.S.-South Korean military exercises, including field training, which was suspended under former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Seoul’s reassessment reflects a growing appetite in South Korea for nuclear weapons. A February poll showed that 71 percent of South Koreans surveyed want Seoul to develop its own nukes, with 56 percent supporting the redeployment of U.S. nukes in the country. For Cho Kyong-hwan, a member of the Presidential Commission on Policy Planning, the Russia-Ukraine war is a reminder that when things get “really dicey … you only have your own power to defend yourself.”

In Taiwan, Ukraine’s dogged resistance to Russia’s invasion shed new light on scenarios of a potential amphibious invasion by China. The Ukrainians’ highly effective use of asymmetrical warfare—for example, the use of small, easily portable anti-tank Javelin and anti-air Stinger missiles—has led Taiwanese analysts to stress Taipei’s use of the same tactic, focused on the sea and air. According to one analyst, 16 out of 18 Taiwanese arms purchases from the United States since the beginning of the Trump administration have focused on strengthening these asymmetric capabilities rather than securing big-ticket items, such as advanced fighter jets and warships.

Other measures are in the offing. Taiwanese Foreign Minister Joseph Wu said more U.S. arms deals will be announced. At home, Taiwan intends to more than double its annual production of missiles. The country is also planning to extend its universal four-month military conscription to one year.

Compared with Northeast Asia, Southeast Asian countries have been less prompt to buttress their military capabilities in light of the war in Ukraine. But even there, the idea that the region should rely more on self-help than external assistance in the event of conflict seems to be getting a boost from the war.

Singapore, for one, is acutely aware of the shifting strategic environment. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong held Ukraine up as an example for his country to follow. The will to defend one’s country “keeps the Ukrainians going and that Singaporeans must have, if we are going to keep ourselves safe in this world,” he told reporters. While the comment was not directed at any specific country, Singapore’s armed forces are widely presumed to deter attacks on the island republic or interference in the sea lanes on which it depends. Thanks to the highest per capita defense spending in Asia, Singapore’s military is already the best equipped in Southeast Asia.

In early March, Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen said the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) would set up a new Digital and Intelligence Service, combining intelligence, cyber-capabilities, and psychological defense, and that the SAF would be reconfigured as a networked force. He did not attribute the decisions to events in Ukraine but said the SAF would be reconfigured to tackle hybrid warfare campaigns of the kind deployed by Russia in Ukraine.

Although outgoing Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte calls Putin a “personal friend,” in March Duterte made a break with his anti-U.S. past and offered the United States the use of Philippine military facilities should the Russia-Ukraine war spill over to Asia. On April 21, Duterte called on his country’s military and police forces to “be ready” for all eventualities.

Vietnam has refused to condemn Russia directly, given its good relations with Moscow. But depending on how Washington plays it, it could well place itself in Hanoi’s good books. Right now, Vietnam could be in line for U.S. sanctions because of its intent to buy Russian-made fighter aircraft—based on the same U.S. sanctions law that led the Philippines and Indonesia to roll back plans to purchase Russian arms. But Washington has an inherent interest in seeing Vietnam upgrade its military kit to counter China, particularly in the South China Sea, and cheaper Russian jets are all Vietnam can afford. A sanctions waiver, possibly connected with the reinstatement of joint U.S.-Vietnamese military exercises, could therefore be in the offing.

Asian governments don’t necessarily believe that war will erupt in the region anytime soon. But China could take a leaf from Russia’s playbook by using gray-zone and hybrid warfare tactics in the South China Sea, for example. There, China is already manufacturing historical narratives about its territorial claims that echo Russia’s about Ukraine. Beijing’s broadsides against Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy also parallel Moscow’s claims that NATO forced it to attack Ukraine. In March, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng endorsed Russia’s claims that NATO expansion triggered the war and said the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy is “as dangerous as the NATO strategy of eastward expansion in Europe.” If left unchecked, this would push the region “over the edge of an abyss.” Given how Russia used this kind of rhetoric to justify its attack on Ukraine, the resolve in Asian capitals to strengthen their defenses will only grow.

Europe has had a brutal reintroduction to the reality of hard power. Asia needs no such introduction, having seen plenty of conflict since World War II. But even there, the Russian invasion has infused governments with a new seriousness about preparing for future conflict.

William Choong is a senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute and the managing editor of Fulcrum, the institute’s commentary website focused on greater Southeast Asia. Twitter: @willschoong

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