In Trump’s World, Nukes Are Self-Defense

As the Japan-U.S. alliance weakens, could Tokyo drop its nuclear weapons ban?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) offers a silent prayer during the 73rd anniversary memorial service for the atomic bomb victims at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on Aug. 6, 2018. (JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) offers a silent prayer during the 73rd anniversary memorial service for the atomic bomb victims at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on Aug. 6, 2018. (JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)

Facing the reality of a nuclear North Korea, worsening relations with ostensible ally South Korea, and an unpredictable partner in Washington, Japan’s government is ramping up its military defenses, shedding many of its postwar taboos. Could the ban on nuclear weapons also be sent to the scrap heap at the same time as the country gets a real army? The idea seems far-fetched, but Japan is increasingly alone in a fast-changing Asian security environment.

Since the advent of the atomic age, Japan has sat comfortably under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, a key element in a defense alliance that is often touted by both U.S. and Japanese officials as the strongest in the world. The treaty, first signed in 1951, provides U.S. security guarantees for a country that had renounced the use of force in its post-World War II constitution, which was largely drafted by Japan’s U.S. occupiers. In exchange, Japan is home to extensive U.S. military bases that have helped to project power into the center of East Asia. The alliance seemed unbreakable. But that was before Donald Trump became U.S. president—a leader ostensibly willing to put everything on the table, with a view of Japan seemingly stuck in the 1980s.

From the cost of military bases to the chronic trade deficit, Trump’s statements have Japanese officials privately worried that the United States might take rash action that would have been unthinkable in previous administrations—such as a deal with North Korea that leaves Japan exposed.

Cementing the warming personal relations between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Trump were recent comments from Kim ahead of their planned February summit.

“Kim Jong Un said that we will believe in President Trump’s positive way of thinking, wait with patience and in good faith and, together with the U.S., advance step by step toward the goal to be reached by the two countries,” North Korea’s official KCNA news agency said last Thursday.

The problem for Japan is what that might mean for its security. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News last week that “Chairman Kim continues to assure the president of the United States he is intent on denuclearization”—but promises of denuclearization on one side of the Sea of Japan are prompting backroom talk of going the opposite way on the other.

That would be a huge step. The only country to have seen firsthand the devastation of atomic weapons, Japan has long held a no-nukes policy based on three principles: nonpossession, nonproduction, and nonintroduction of nuclear weapons. It has been a leading force at the United Nations for nonproliferation and the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons.

Trump has railed against Japan on numerous occasions, even as he seems to retain some fondness for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. But he has even kinder words for Kim. Trump’s much-heralded North Korean deal is still up in the air, but he famously declared when he returned to Washington from the pomp of the Singapore summit that the United States was now safe. The choice of words was not lost on the Japanese government, which rushed to ensure that it was not being left out in the cold (or the rain).

The concern in Tokyo is that Trump, badly in need of a clear victory in his North Korea negotiations, may settle for a ban on intercontinental weapons, leaving nearby Asian countries to sort out what to do about all the short-range missiles that Pyongyang has deployed.

As many experts have noted, what the U.S.-North Korea commitment to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula means is in the eye of the beholder. For Kim, it appears to mean that the United States drops its strategic military alliance with South Korea. Given the proximity to Japan and the fact that defense of South Korea is a cornerstone of the U.S.-Japan military alliance, North Korea would likely insist that the same goes for Japan.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who took office in May 2017, has moved at a breakneck pace to reduce the threat posed by Pyongyang. His administration has taken the lead in dealing with his unpredictable neighbor (and an unpredictable U.S. leader). He has held three summit meetings with Kim, with the two leaders agreeing to reduce the military capabilities along the border and Demilitarized Zone. Moon has also said the South would provide financial and economic aid as soon as U.S. sanctions are lifted.

While a more relaxed Korean Peninsula should appear to be good news, the rapprochement scenario poses its own risks to Japan. While South Korea is seeing a steady improvement in relations with Pyongyang, the Koreas’ ties to Japan have been worsening steadily.

Some have been more point scoring than policy disputes, such as Japan’s withdrawal from naval maneuvers after South Korea demanded it not use the Rising Sun flag for its naval ships.

Others are more serious, however, and play into a long-held Korean narrative that all would be well if only Japan weren’t around. A long-running dispute over wartime forced prostitution has come back despite a 2015 agreement with the previous South Korean government. This has now been joined by lawsuits over forced labor for Japan’s wartime industries. Japan says any legal action was settled in the 1965 peace treaty between the two countries. South Korea’s Supreme Court has ruled that the treaty does not cover actions by individuals, paving the way for seizure of Japanese assets.

Kim has taken the opportunity to pile on the abuse, warning this month that Japan’s pressure over the abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s would mean that Pyongyang would raise its own complaints over wartime laborers.

Can this seemingly common cause run deeper? The idea of a single Korea has been a long-standing dream of both countries and reiterated in their summit meetings. From Japan’s perspective, it is important for South Korea to pledge today that any combined Korea would swear off the idea of having nuclear weapons.

“Unless the South Koreans do so now, it would become difficult for them to say the same thing when the unification becomes more realistic. In the worst-case scenario in which a unified Korea inherits nuclear weapons from North Korea, Japan would become the only major country in the region not to have nuclear weapons, creating a significant reputational issue,” said Narushige Michishita, a professor at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies. “If it happens, Japan might be almost forced to acquire nuclear weapons, wasting a lot of money and other precious resources.”

All this uncertainty plays into the hands of Japanese hawks, who have long complained that Japan should turn its back on the postwar pacifist constitution and get to work on a proper military force.

The 1947 U.S.-drafted constitution states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes.” The wording is quite direct, but the government has shown itself willing to stretch a point. While the document goes on to say that “land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained,” this has not stopped the country from amassing formidable armed forces in everything but name. The Japanese armed forces are considered one of the most advanced in the world and rated among the top 10 by strategic groups.

Abe, who in his previous 2006-2007 term was the first Japanese prime minister not to have lived through World War II, is leading this charge. He has pushed up defense spending by more than 10 percent since taking office in 2012. For the new fiscal year starting in April, the defense spending will rise to a record $48 billion, a 2.1 percent increase. This has been done with little opposition, even though the government’s continuing budget deficits have put public debt at around 225 percent of annual GDP, making it among the most indebted countries in the world by most measures.

The most significant step is to refit Japan’s two helicopter carriers to be able to deploy the F-35B fighter jet, the U.S. Marine Corps version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Pressed on why a purely defensive military force needs aircraft carriers, Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya said, “The planned modification to the Izumo-class carriers is to increase their applications.” Given the sensitivities, the ships are also not called aircraft carriers but are instead officially listed as “multipurpose escort destroyers.”

The budget will include the purchase of U.S.-made weapon systems, which will conveniently help to reduce Japan’s trade surplus with the United States, another recent source of irritation between the two countries. Aside from the F-35 planes, totaling more than 80 overall, $2.1 billion will be spent for a ground-based version of the Aegis missile tracking system. In doing so, Japan has weathered criticism from not only North Korea but also China and Russia, which view the system as a way to block their missiles as well.

There has also been a flurry of courtesy calls and maneuvers with various Japanese allies, taking the country’s forces into areas that pretty clearly stretch the definition of self-defense. The helicopter carrier Kaga last year sailed through the contentious South China Sea, which is claimed by China, and the Indian Ocean to meet up with ally India and stop in Sri Lanka. The Air Self-Defense Force held joint drills with Australia and the U.K. Royal Navy, and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force held its first joint amphibious exercise in Japanese waters.

All of this is what one security expert at a defense think tank called “securing the U.S. presence while improving [Japan’s] own capability within the alliance.”

A long-running question for Japan has been whether the U.S. security guarantee is actually a firm one. This is sometimes referred to as the “de Gaulle doctrine,” named after French President Charles de Gaulle, in which he questioned whether the United States would ever risk an attack on a major American city to protect Europe. At the same time, a U.S. abandonment of Japan would face harsh opposition on both sides of the Pacific. In the words of one security expert in Tokyo, a U.S. pullback from South Korea or Japan would mean that Washington is in effect saying, “China, we don’t care about Asia. Please take it.”

Yet from a technical standpoint, experts agree that acquiring nuclear weapons would be fairly easy for Japan, taking anywhere from six months to a few years. It has stockpiles from its nuclear power plants of 47 tons of plutonium, enough for around 6,000 nuclear warheads, and the rockets developed for its civilian space program could be rebadged for military purposes. Experts say, however, that developing a full-fledged operational deterrent would be much more complex and much more expensive.

Japan defense scholars also stress that a decision to go nuclear would face a number of political and geopolitical issues, chief among them domestic public opinion. “While there has been a modest increase in support for an enhanced conventional defense force, there is no sign of public support for acquiring nuclear weapons and is in fact at its lowest level ever,” said Corey Wallace, an Asia-Pacific security expert and fellow in the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin. He also notes that China would be firmly opposed, with fairly serious repercussions on relations that have been improving in recent years.

Changing public sentiment would likely be prompted only by a fundamental shift in Japan’s perceived safety, such as direct threats by an emboldened North Korea (or a unified Korea). “The Japanese public is skeptical about the utility of the use of power projection and nuclear weapons in particular, but it is not blindly irrational or idealistic,” Wallace said.

And where to obtain them? Michishita sees a fairly simple answer: Buy them from the United States. “If they sell nuclear weapons to Japan, they can make some money and can maintain influence in the situation,” he said. “If the Americans say no, we could go talk to the French.”

William Sposato is a Tokyo-based writer who has been following Japan’s politics and economics for more than 20 years. He previously worked at Reuters and The Wall Street Journal.

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