TOKYO – Global geopolitical attention remains focused on the war in Ukraine. But a significant shift, potentially even more serious in the long run than Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, seems to be occurring in East Asia as a result of President Vladimir Putin’s war.
US President Joe Biden has explicitly ruled out sending American troops to Ukraine or establishing a no-fly zone over the country. According to White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, a no-fly zone “would require, essentially, the US military shooting down Russian planes and prompting a potential direct war with Russia, the exact step that we want to avoid.” In other words, the United States has admitted that it would not want to risk a direct confrontation with another nuclear power.
That stance has alarmed many people in East Asia who rely on the US nuclear umbrella. What would America do, say, if China decided to invade Taiwan, or if North Korea invaded South Korea, as it did in 1950? What if China sent armed coast guard ships to surround and occupy Japan’s Senkaku Islands?
Of course, the situations in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan’s Senkaku Islands are very different from one another, and from the conflict in Ukraine. But, for the US unilaterally to give up on the prospect of military deterrence is a mistake.
Former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō argued recently that the US should end its policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan and make it crystal clear that it would defend the island against any attempted Chinese invasion. But the hurdles to aiding Taiwan’s defense are higher than in the case of Ukraine, because the US has acknowledged China’s claim that Taiwan is part of China for more than a half-century. Given this “one-China policy,” Chinese leaders would construe any invasion of Taiwan by China as an internal matter, not an act of aggression by another sovereign state.
If the US does not adopt Abe’s proposal, which is likely, then only the prospect of US economic sanctions might deter China from invading Taiwan. That is why the success of the current Western-led economic and financial sanctions against Russia is vital.
Such deterrence is crucial to East Asia’s stability. On March 24, North Korea tested its new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which can carry multiple nuclear warheads and has an estimated range encompassing the entire US. Once North Korea becomes confident in its capacity to strike US cities, its efforts to bring about a forced unification of the Korean Peninsula may become bolder.
Similarly, on April 20, Russia test-launched its new Sarmat ICBM, which could deploy multiple nuclear warheads at hypersonic speeds to strike anywhere in the US, with Putin warning that Russia’s adversaries should “think twice” before threatening it. Because the threat of Western sanctions was not enough to deter Russia from invading Ukraine, many in East Asia fear that Putin may have aggressive ambitions in that region, too.
For example, Japan and Russia are locked in a longstanding dispute over the four northern islands that the Soviet Union occupied in August 1945 after Japan indicated its acceptance of the Allied surrender terms in the Potsdam Declaration. Despite this acceptance, many Japanese citizens and soldiers in Manchuria after the end of the Pacific War were captured by Soviet forces and detained for years in Siberian labor camps.
This difficult history notwithstanding, Abe attempted to engage in friendly negotiations with Putin, promising Russia joint business projects in the hope of securing the peaceful return of the islands, or at least of the two smaller islands closest to Japan. But in the end, Putin rebuffed Abe. So, Japan continues to worry that these four islands could become a military base for short-range Russian missiles aimed at its northern island of Hokkaido.
More worryingly, in October 2021, a joint Chinese-Russian naval fleet of ten warships undertook a long mission around the Japanese archipelago. This was clearly intended to be a strong signal to Japan and the US, which is committed to defending Japan under the US-Japan security treaty.
Japan also feels threatened by China, as armed Chinese coast guard vessels regularly circle the Senkaku Islands and occasionally encroach on Japanese territorial waters. What would the Japanese and US governments do if China suddenly occupied the islands?
China and North Korea have not condemned Russia’s war in Ukraine. They either abstained or voted against United Nations resolutions condemning the invasion and suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council. Likewise, Russia and/or China will veto any additional sanctions on North Korea for firing missiles and testing nuclear weapons.
The US, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan must now focus on where to draw their red lines in East Asia, and effectively communicate these, loudly or quietly, to Russia, North Korea, and China. Given the increasing tensions created by these three powers, the necessary boundaries – and the price that will be paid if they are crossed – must be made visible.
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