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Ukraine crisis creates new security risks in Asia

  • February 19, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 3:14 p.m.
  • English Press

TOKYO — The ramifications of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis go far beyond the impact on Europe. It could create a new security threat to Asia as well. Japan and other major countries should analyze the geopolitical and other implications of the conflict and adjust their policies accordingly.

 

In response to the crisis, the Japanese government is discussing a range of issues, including economic sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine, as well as measures to ensure stable supplies of energy.

 

But making tough decisions on sanctions against Moscow would be only the first of many complicated challenges that the escalation of the crisis would pose to Japan. Tokyo also needs to brace for possible repercussions on the geopolitical landscape in Asia from an acrimonious relationship between the U.S. and Russia.

 

First, military tensions between the U.S. and Russia are likely to rise in areas around the Russian Far East. Russian forces are already expanding activities in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. Japanese policymakers in charge of national security and the top brass of the Self-Defense Forces are monitoring the situation with a sense of alarm.

 

In December, for instance, Russia announced it would start operating new nuclear-powered submarines in the Far East and deploy land-to-sea missiles on Matua Island, an uninhabited volcanic island near the center of the Kuril chain, for the first time.

 

From late January to February, Russia’s Pacific Fleet has carried out large-scale naval exercises in the Sea of Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk involving some 20 battleships and other vessels.

 

 

On Feb. 12, Moscow said a U.S. submarine had intruded into Russian territorial waters in the Pacific close to where naval exercises were taking place. The U.S. denied having military operations in Russian waters. The episode could be another sign of rising tensions between the U.S. and Russian forces in the region.

 

These facts reflect far-reaching repercussions from the Ukraine border crisis, which inevitably affects the security situation in East Asia due to Moscow’s military strategy.

 

Russia operates a fleet of nuclear-armed submarines in the Sea of Okhotsk. These are the weapons of last resort that Russia would use to attack the U.S. mainland in case of a nuclear war. Russia thinks its very survival depends on these subs.

 

The Russian military is beefing up its capabilities in the Sea of Okhotsk and the surrounding areas to protect the vital fleet of nuclear subs. That will inevitably increase tensions between the Russian and U.S. forces in areas around Japan and also between the Russian forces and Japan’s Self-Defense Forces.

 

Moscow regards the so-called Northern Territories, a group of four islands off Hokkaido that are occupied by Russia but claimed by Japan, as part of the “defense line” to protect the Sea of Okhotsk, according to an expert on the Russian military. Moscow is likely to build up its military presence in these islands, which are assuming increasing strategic importance, in a serious blow to Japan’s hopes for their return to its sovereignty.

 

The Ukraine crisis could also complicate the Japanese and U.S. defense strategies vis-a-vis China.

 

This prospect was recently highlighted by what U.S. President Joe Biden offered to Russian President Vladimir Putin in written replies to key Russian security demands on Jan. 26.

 

While rejecting Russia’s demand for a ban on Ukraine’s entry into NATO and a halt to further NATO expansion, Biden made the following offers as a way to ease concerns on both sides.

 

– Washington would agree to talks with Moscow to limit the deployment of ground-based short- and intermediate-range missiles.

 

– The U.S. and Russia would ensure greater transparency of military drills in Europe.

 

– The U.S. would disclose information about its missile defense bases in Romania and Poland in exchange for reciprocal Russian action about two of its missile bases.

 

These proposals, even if they helped ease tensions between the two countries, could increase security risks in Asia because they could benefit the Chinese military.

 

The most worrisome one is the offer to hold bilateral talks over short- to intermediate-range missiles.

 

Under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in 1987, the U.S. and Russia are banned from possessing land-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km. Over the years since, China, which is not bound by the treaty, has manufactured missiles covered by the pact and is now believed to have deployed more than 1,000 of them.

 

China’s naval and air capabilities have already surpassed those of the U.S. in Asia. Its missile superiority would tip the military balance further in its favor, seriously undermining stability in the Taiwan Strait as well as in the East and South China seas.

 

This alarming prospect prompted the Trump administration to withdraw the U.S. from the INF treaty, causing it to expire in 2019. If the Biden administration reintroduced limits to missile deployments, Asia’s security would be seriously compromised unless China joined the new agreement.

 

The U.S. proposal for increased transparency of military exercises and missile defense bases only covers Europe. But Putin may demand that Asia be included in the U.S.-Russia arms control framework, according to diplomatic sources. Putin’s aim would be to restrict joint military drills between the U.S. and its allies, including Japan and South Korea, while gaining access to information about missile defense systems in Japan and South Korea.

 

While the U.S. is unlikely to agree to such Russian demands, Moscow is almost certain to work closely with Beijing to undermine the alliances between the U.S. and its key partners in the region, such as Japan, South Korea and Australia.

 

In a joint statement issued on Feb. 4, China and Russia criticized the AUKUS trilateral security pact among the U.S., Britain and Australia and voiced their objection to the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Asia.

 

The Japanese government has unofficially conveyed its views and concerns about these new security developments in Asia to the Biden administration to alert Washington to their strategic implications.

 

But Biden, preoccupied with the Ukraine crisis and potential armed conflicts, may fail to pay enough attention to possible repercussions on the security landscape in Asia.

 

This makes it imperative for major powers in the region, including Japan, South Korea, Australia and India, to work closely with the U.S. to ensure that the Biden administration does not fail to recognize the new security risks for Asia.

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