Ukraine war may drive more Indo-Pacific nations towards nuclear weapons

The nations of the Indo-Pacific are watching Russia’s invasion of Ukraine closely and it’s likely to drive some to seek access to nuclear weapons, says Singapore’s former foreign minister Bilahari Kausikan.

In an interview with The Strategist, the forthright Kausikan notes that much has been said about the return of great-power politics and this is a rude reminder that they did not go away. They’re manifesting themselves now in very dangerous ways.

He says Russian President Vladimir Putin was clearly surprised by the swift, cohesive and strong Western response, and two or three days into the conflict he rattled his nuclear sabre, ‘I think just to remind everybody what’s what. I don’t think they’ll be used this time, but could they be used in a conflict if the Russians were losing? Certainly.’

There are lessons here for the nations of the Indo-Pacific, says Kausikan. ‘The world is a dangerous place, and you should be prepared. I think anybody who did not believe that would have to rethink their positions fundamentally.’

Kausikan has no doubt that if Putin were cornered by conventional NATO forces, he’d consider using tactical nuclear weapons. ‘That’s in the Russian military doctrine.’

He says that despite the Ukrainians’ heroic resistance, they will eventually be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the Russian forces. ‘So, I think in this particular case, the use of tactical nuclear weapons will not arise.’

But, will Putin’s implied nuclear threats encourage other nations to seek nuclear weapons?

That’s likely, says Kausikan. Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said soon after the war broke out that Japan should consider allowing the US to station tactical nuclear weapons on its territory, as it does with some NATO countries. South Korea has been openly debating the desirability of having an independent nuclear deterrent.

That would be immensely painful politically and divisive for both countries, Kausikan says. ‘But I think the logic of events, the logic of their circumstances, will move them in that direction.’

North Korea isn’t going to give up its nuclear weapons and will continue to improve them. China is engaged in a nuclear modernisation program.

Kaukisan says a process has begun towards a ‘multilateral balance of mutual destruction’. That will be a fraught process, ‘but once we get there, it will be stabilising’, he says. ‘It will also freeze, together with India and Pakistan—which are nuclear powers, don’t forget—the natural multipolarity of our Indo-Pacific region, and that would put an end to any dream of hierarchy, if such a dream is part of the China dream.’

He says the only way to deal with a dangerous world is through balance, and many in the region will support Australia improving its defences, including by obtaining nuclear-powered submarines. ‘Australia by itself cannot be a balance, but Australia, Japan, the US and other like-minded countries is a balance, and if I am right about what the long-term trajectory of our region is, a multilateral balance of nuclear power will arise sooner or later.’

Then, he says the region won’t be in bad shape. ‘It will not be dominated by any single power, and that gives all of us more manoeuvre space.’

Kausikan observes that some analysts had gleefully declared that the Ukraine conflict would distract the United States and the West, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan distracted them for 20 years. That would give China a 10-year free ride to grow.

‘They seem to have overlooked a small, minor detail,’ says Kausikan. ‘This is not the US getting bogged down in war. It is China’s partner, Russia, getting bogged down in war, so I don’t see how this will be a distraction for the West. The West has made clear, I think quite wisely, they are not going to get directly involved with troops on the ground. China has been put into a terrible dilemma.’

He says the fact that Putin waited until after the Beijing Olympics to start the war indicates that the Chinese probably had some knowledge of his plan to invade Ukraine. ‘However, it is quite clear to me that the Chinese were as taken aback as anybody by the scale of the attack, by the ferocity of the attack, and I think by the response from the West.’

Now, Xi Jinping has three mutually irreconcilable goals.

China, says Kausikan, is neurotic about maintaining principles like sovereignty, non-interference and territorial integrity as norms of international relations—and its ‘no limits’ partner has just thrown those principles out of the window.

China wants to avoid becoming collateral damage in the sanctions levied against Russia. China’s leaders have got a lot of problems internally, which they’re dealing with. The world economy is still soft. ‘This is a party congress year, so they don’t need this extra nonsense. So, they’re trying to stay out of being embroiled in the sanctions,’ he says.

‘But thirdly, and I think most crucially to them, they want to keep the partnership with Russia. Whatever reservations they may have about Mr Putin’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine and all the destruction that’s going on there with the disruptions to the world economy, the hard fact is the Chinese have no other partner of equal strategic weight to Russia that shares their discomfort with the current world order and is prepared to work with China to modify it.’

China being stuck with Russia creates a dilemma, Kausikan says. ‘So I don’t think they’re very happy in Beijing. They’ve been twisting and turning in their position, trying to avoid using the “invasion” word, alluding to the fact they’re willing to play some kind of role in brokering a ceasefire, if not a settlement. Nobody seems to be paying them too much attention, not their “no limits” partner, anyway.’

He says, borrowing a quote from Lenin, that the Chinese view the Russians as ‘useful idiots’ with a strong military and commodities China wants to buy. The Chinese are cold-blooded about such matters, he says. ‘They can see the long-term trajectory of Russia is not optimistic one, but it’s useful for the moment and they have no other partner.’

North Korea is touted as a partner of China, but, Kausikan says, ‘If you hear the North Koreans talk about the Chinese, you will conclude that they distrust them more than they distrust Americans.’

When China sees that Russia has gone too far, it can’t be happy, but it can’t abandon Russia, he says.

Russia’s economy is in dire straits, and it will need economic support, yet China doesn’t want to be caught up in secondary sanctions.

But for China to turn its back entirely on Russia would expose the hollowness of their ‘no limits’ partnership, and sooner or later questions will be asked about the wisdom of its leaders in getting into this relationship.

Kausikan doesn’t think the Chinese are too worried about outsiders criticising them for not criticising the Russians. ‘But if their own people start asking questions in a party congress year, that’s rather serious. They’re in a fix.’

Given the fierce Ukrainian resistance, and the slow Russian progress, will Xi rethink the wisdom of invading Taiwan?

‘I should certainly hope so,’ says Kausikan. ‘I don’t think any Chinese leader can give up the aspiration to take over Taiwan, but if I was Mr Xi and I’m watching the less than stellar performance of the vaunted Russian military, I will be wondering to myself, “What on earth are my generals telling me?” and how much of that can he believe?’ Xi might seek independent verification of what his generals tell him.

Xi should note the strong Western and international response. ‘He must know that the hard fact is Ukraine is less important to the US and its East Asian allies than Taiwan.’

Kausikan says that if the Taiwanese do something provocative, like unilaterally declare independence, that’s one scenario. ‘But if they don’t do that and there’s a unilateral Chinese attack on Taiwan, that’s an entirely different situation, and I find it very difficult to think of America staying out as it is. America staying out would basically destroy the alliance system in East Asia.

‘If they intervene, as I think they will, I cannot see Japan staying out. I cannot see South Korea staying out, and possibly even Australia and India getting involved in some way. So, I think Mr Xi knows that Taiwan is more important than Ukraine. Economically and strategically, he has seen the international reaction, and if I was him, I’d be pondering this rather deeply.’

Russia has been surprised by the fight in the outnumbered Ukrainians. Would Taiwan put up the same level of resistance to an invasion by China?

‘Absolutely,’ says Kausikan. ‘Time is not on China’s side as far as Taiwan is concerned. The Taiwanese identity is separate from the kind of identity Mr Xi Jinping wants to impose on them and it’s growing stronger.’