Japan and South Korea are being reluctantly and probably inevitably pushed towards becoming nuclear weapon states, former Singapore Foreign Minister Bilahari Kausikan told the RAAF air and space power conference in a wide-ranging keynote speech.
Just prior to the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy had almost wistfully mused about his country giving up the nuclear arsenal it had inherited from the Soviet Union “in return for a piece of paper," Kausikan commented.
Others had noticed this lesson. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe suggested soon after the invasion began that the US deploy tactical nuclear weapons on Japanese soil “as it does in some NATO countries."
“And in fact, for several decades Japan has been quietly preparing with American acquiescence if not complicity, for contingencies that may require an independent nuclear deterrent of its own," Kausikan noted.
Opinion polls in South Korea had shown overwhelming support for the deployment of US tactical nuclear weapons on Korean territory, and Koreans had been openly debating the desirability of acquiring an independent nuclear deterrent for some time, he added.
As North Korea and China continued to improve their second-strike capability, and given the situation in Ukraine, questions were bound to arise – as they had in Europe decades ago - concerning the credibility of the US extended deterrent.
“I don’t think either Japan or South Korea are eager to become nuclear weapon states; it will be immensely politically painful and internally divisive. But what are the alternatives?" Kausikan queried.
“I think the inherent logic of the circumstances these countries find themselves in will however reluctantly, push them in that direction because the alternative would be the breakup of the American alliance system and subordination to China.
“And for both Japan and South Korea, that would require such a redefinition of their national identity that the nuclear option would be the less dramatic option."
Eventually, a multilateral balance of mutually assured destruction would arrive in northeast Asia – US, Japan, China, Russia, and the two Koreas, Kausikan stated.
“If you throw India and Pakistan into the equation, this multilateral nuclear balance will essentially freeze the existing configuration of power in the Indo-Pacific and will provide manoeuvre space for small countries."
This kind of multilateral balance was not the kind of multibalance that China or Russia sought because nuclear weapons were a great equaliser, Kausikan noted.
“Insofar as the China dream is a dream of hierarchy with China at its apex, that dream will have to be substantially tempered de facto if not de jure to this new reality and that makes in the long run for healthier relationships between China and all its neighbours."