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Bill Emmott: Ukraine war shows fighting capability must for deterrence; Tokyo takes note

Bill Emmott (Mainichi/Kentaro Ikushima)

One aspect of Russia's war on Ukraine that has been remarkable as well as very positive has been the reaction to it in Japan and by the Japanese government. Japan, it seemed to foreign observers, was especially quick to learn lessons from Russia's invasion. As we near the one-year anniversary of that invasion on Feb. 24th, it is worth reflecting on what those lessons now amount to, especially for the future peace of the Indo-Pacific region.

    One type of lesson has been about how the Ukraine war's significance has looked different to different countries. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made his government's position clear first by joining the western sanctions against Russia immediately and then, in a keynote speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a prestigious conference of defence and security ministers from around the Indo-Pacific, used what now seems to be his strategic catch-phrase: "Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow."

    Alongside Japan, some other Indo-Pacific countries have also taken strong stances against Russia and its invasion. Singapore, for example, has spoken clearly about how important to its future is the international rule of law and how Russia's invasion has violated the basic principles of the United Nations Charter of 1945. A lot of other Southeast Asian nations, however, have preferred to remain quieter, even big countries such as Indonesia.

    We can't know whether this means they do not care about the U.N. Charter and the rule of law, or whether they simply prefer to leave it to others to speak up for, and actively defend, those principles. Meanwhile, India has been more transparent about the low priority it gives to these principles of the inviolability of national sovereignty. It prefers to follow a policy it calls "all-alignment," just voicing rather general criticisms of the war while continuing to buy military equipment and services from Russia, as well, of course, as oil.

    Thus, we have learned that although the Indo-Pacific is not dividing into clear camps, it is certainly divided in terms of how far countries are prepared to go to defend the basic rules-based order set up by the U.N. Charter. Yet while such lessons may be interesting for geopolitical analysts like me, they are less important than the practical ones that have been emerging.

    A big direct lesson that applies principally to Taiwan, but could have implications also for Southeast Asian countries and for Japan, is that your armed forces and indeed your own citizenry need to be prepared for war, if you believe there is a reasonable danger that war could come. Ukraine's citizens were well prepared, thanks to the fact that Russia's first invasion, of Crimea and the eastern Donbass region, took place eight years ago.

    It is for that reason that Taiwan has just increased the period of conscription for young Taiwanese from four months military service to twelve months. This is intended to ensure that more Taiwanese have had military training and will be able, if necessary, to be brought back into the armed forces if an invasion is threatened or begun.

    This decision, however, suggests that the government of Taiwan has not really taken the lesson of Ukraine properly to heart. Four months conscription was clearly woefully inadequate: it would barely be enough time to learn how to tie your military bootlaces properly. But twelve months still looks too little. Until 2008, the period was two years.

    For Ukraine's survival during the past year, the willingness and ability of Ukrainian citizens to fight, whether as partisan resistance forces or as full members of the armed forces, has played a critical role both in pushing back the Russians and in raising the costs to Moscow of its attempted actions. While modern military equipment, including air defences, has been vital, so has the human factor. Currently, Taiwan does not look as if its citizenry is going to be sufficiently prepared to put up an equivalent level of resistance if China were ever to attempt an invasion.

    Conscription and military service are not pleasant prospects. It is not surprising that in Taiwan's democracy, the government is reluctant to move back to the conscription rules that applied in the past, just as other governments in the region will feel similarly reluctant. Nonetheless, it does look necessary to build this sort of level of preparation and war-fighting capability.

    The other direct lesson has plainly been learned by Japan: that while a security alliance with the United States is necessary, it is not sufficient. That is why Japan's new defence strategy, with its sharp increase in spending over the next five years, is the right approach. The nation's huge archipelago, with islands stretching from Hokkaido and the Kuriles in the north way down to the Nansei islands nearby to Taiwan, cannot be defended by small armed forces with their bases and supplies thousands of kilometers away on Honshu or Kyushu. The armed forces need to be larger, and they need to be deployed closer to where conflict could arise.

    This doesn't just apply to Japan, of course: if further-away countries such as the United Kingdom or France are to play a serious role in deterring conflict in the Indo-Pacific, as they claim to want to, they will have to be present and available at very short notice. It will be no good saying that you are happy to help out in a few months' time.

    Nonetheless, military deterrence consists of more than theoretical capabilities. In the case of Ukraine, Russia was not deterred from its invasion by the prospect of Ukrainian resistance nor by the prospect of western support for Ukraine. In part, this was because the extent of that western support was at that point unproven. But also it was because the western response looked likely to consist principally of financial and economic sanctions, just as had in the past.

    The risk of those sanctions, as we now know, had little or no deterrent effect. Certainly, the actual sanctions proved more powerful than Russia expected, and yet they haven't crippled Russia either. It is unlikely that a future potential invader would look at the sanctions imposed on Russia and thereby change their minds about taking military action. Sanctions are a punishment but not a prevention. A country willing to make the national sacrifices required for war is also willing to ignore such punishments.

    The clearest lesson from Ukraine is that deterrence needs to plainly raise the potential military costs and alter the calculations surrounding a conflict, and thus to materially affect the invader's chances of success. Behind that deterrence must lie the political will to fight. But equally important is clear evidence of military capabilities adequate to make the aggressor think twice, or preferably thrice. The biggest question Japan and other countries in the Indo-Pacific will have to ask themselves in coming year is whether they have really achieved that demonstrable level of deterrence.

    (By Bill Emmott. Bill Emmott is an independent writer, lecturer and consultant on international affairs)

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