Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified military attack on Ukraine has not only undermined the basic norms and tenets of the international order based on the United Nations Charter but it has also provoked strategic recalculations of international relations in the rest of the world, including in East Asia.
The Russian invasion has pushed Japan firmly into the Western camp and helped South Korea elect a conservative president and move to a more aggressive defense posture against North Korea. The Russian military action in Ukraine has already incentivized North Korea to further develop its nuclear capability, including long-range ICBMs. Should Russia succeed in Ukraine, it might even lead North Korea to contemplate use of force to achieve reunification of the Korean Peninsula at an appropriate moment.
China would also feel encouraged to take a more aggressive stance toward Taiwan as well as the East and South China Seas. Such actions by North Korea and China would have profound effects on the stability in East Asia and beyond.
China has consistently sided with Russia in the lead-up to and even after the Russian aggression began against Ukraine, at least publicly. China voted with Russia to veto efforts in the United Nations Security Council to demand an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine and attempted to prevent the General Assembly from condemning the Russian attack on Ukraine and its demand for an immediate cease-fire. The Chinese judge in the International Court of Justice voted with the Russian judge against the provisional measures demanding an immediate end to Russia’s military action.
The court, in a majority vote, expressed a view that it has jurisdiction to consider Ukraine’s complaint against Russia and that its argument that Ukraine has committed genocide against the Russian population in the Donbas region has no basis to justify the Russian assault.
China, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has a major responsibility to uphold the UN Charter and to contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security. It has supported multilateralism, including through the UN, and has been increasing its contributions to UN peacekeeping in recent years. However, its public support for the Russian aggression is undermining its legitimacy as the defender of the international order, from which it has benefited tremendously, particularly in developing economy. Any substantial military and economic support to Russia would undermine China’s economy, which relies heavily on the Western market, as well as its geopolitics, particularly among developing countries.
The increasing stalemate of the Russian actions in Ukraine and the West’s warning are making China more cautious in its support for Russia. China’s increased economic interdependence with the West is no guarantee that China can maintain its economic growth while engaging in aggressive military acts, as the Ukrainian crisis has made it clear that security concerns outweigh economic interdependence.
Russia’s apparent readiness to use nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction is elevating the risk perception involving nuclear weapons in South Korea and Japan. South Korea has responded to North Korea’s ICBM test-launch by firing its own ballistic missiles and is now trying to bring back American tactical nuclear weapons to be stationed in its territory. The public support in South Korea for developing its own nuclear weapons is rising, even though the US, which continues to keep strategic control over the South Korean military, is against the idea.
Japan, the only country that has been devastated by atomic weapons, has long maintained the “three no nuclear principles” policy: not to develop, possess or introduce nuclear weapons into its territory. However, the increasing threat emanating from North Korea’s nuclear development, combined with Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons and China’s increasingly aggressive approach in its dispute with Japan in the East China Sea have prompted a debate as to whether Japan should allow the explicit presence of US nuclear arms in its territory as a defensive step.
Even if such an argument is not widely supported by the public, Russia’s action in Ukraine is forcing Japan to reorient its diplomatic and security strategy to try to overcome the self-restraint emanating from its historical legacy.
Meanwhile, public support for the UN is declining in Japan. There is more demand that the UN, particularly the Security Council, should be reformed. Council reform has been debated for nearly 30 years but has made scant progress. Russia’s flagrant violations of UN Charter principles, with China’s support, have raised questions as to their legitimacy as permanent members of the Council. Yet without their support, no substantive change can happen in the body.
Japan is running for an elected seat in the Council this year, for the 2023-24 term. Would Japan push for another effort to reform the Council? Would it also try to strengthen the role of the General Assembly as a counterweight to the Council? More frequent application of the Uniting for Peace resolution, for example, may help overcome some of the obstacles created by the Council in the maintenance of international peace and security. Much will depend on the outcome of the Russian aggression in Ukraine and the resolve of the rest of the world.
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