Critique, Vol. XII, No. 1 (January 2005)
Will Japan Go Nuclear?
by Marshall Auerback

"In order to prepare for the defense of Japan, the SDF [Self Defense Forces] has to be not only involved in its own efforts, but also in international efforts." – Akihiko Tanaka, defense expert at Tokyo University

“There has been a remarkable growth of pro-Taiwan sentiment in Japan. There is not one pro-China figure in the Koizumi Cabinet.” – Phil Deans, director of the Contemporary China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

In his now infamous “Axis of Evil” speech, President Bush explicitly warned that North Korea and Iran, not just Iraq, threatened the world because of the nuclear weapons they were developing. With the United States increasingly preoccupied by the war in Iraq, these other two “members” of this so-called Axis surged ahead with plans to advance their respective nuclear weapons programs. Both reasonably concluded that what distinguished their situations from Iraq was that Iraq proved not to have nuclear weapons. North Korea and Iran may indeed have already obtained the technology required to manufacture nukes, thereby creating a far more powerful deterrent against a pre-emptive strike by the U.S. military.

Over the past couple of years both Iran and North Korea have been playing a game of chess with America -- and if they have not exactly won, they have advanced by several moves. In the case of Iran, Tehran’s strategy of playing off Europe against the U.S. appears to have been largely successful, with even Britain having publicly gone out of its way to disparage the notion of a pre-emptive military strike. There is mounting evidence that Iran’s nuclear program has been well hidden and broadly dispersed across the country, including in crowded cities. Confronted with intelligence evidence, Iran admitted to inspectors last year that it had hidden critical aspects of its civilian program for 18 years, and even today Pentagon analysts raise questions as to whether all of its nuclear-related sites are known. Iran has also sought to exploit the growing chill in Russo-American diplomatic relations. In mid-December of 2004, it said Moscow would have to show “readiness” to expand nuclear ties with Tehran if it wanted to secure a solid share of Iran’s atomic market in face of growing competition from Europe.

Because it lost time and squandered resources, the United States now has no good options for dealing Iran. What about North Korea?

Here too, the U.S. likely has no good options in a military sense, but there are growing indications that Washington will exploit its longstanding ties with Tokyo as a means of containing Kim Jong Il’s regime. While the rest of the Asia/Pacific region is increasingly turning to Beijing as its new economic and political locus, Japan appears to have made the decision to throw in its lot completely with Washington. Economically, the Bank of Japan has systematically destroyed its balance sheet through its longstanding (and ultimately futile) dollar support operations to accommodate the most egregious excesses in U.S. economic policy-making. But as Japan’s Iraq deployment indicates, this cooperation is now manifesting itself to a greater degree in the military sphere.

Although not yet explicitly stated, the logical culmination of these ties would be to encourage Japan to go nuclear at some stage in the future. From Washington’s perspective, this would also have the added advantage of curbing China’s growing influence in the Asia/Pacific region.

In regard to North Korea, Tokyo has for many decades implicitly encouraged the perpetuation of a divided Korean peninsula. Pyongyang has returned the favor, first through repeated abductions of Japanese citizens during the 1970s (an issue brought to the fore again last year when some were finally reconciled with their respective families) and more recently after North Korea tried to pass off a box of mixed human bones as the remains of a woman who was kidnapped from Japan years ago as a teenager. DNA tests showed that the bones belonged to a variety of people, the announcement of which created shock waves in Japan.

Of more immediate military consequence is a report published by the National Bureau of Asian Research some two years ago. Little noted at the time, the report made comprehensive -- and alarming -- assessments of the ballistic-missile capabilities of various Asian countries (including China, India, Japan, Pakistan, Taiwan, and the two Koreas). In the section on North Korea, the Nodong-1, a Scud-derived missile the country is known to possess, was said to be capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to U.S. military bases in Japan. The Taepodong-1 missile allegedly has an even greater range, and a few years ago the North Koreans test-fired one that landed off the Alaskan coast. The Taepodong-2, which some observers believe the North Koreans may try to develop into a three-stage version, could go farther still. According to the NBAR: “Such a missile could reach most of the continental United States from North Korea.”

Although the non-discovery of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, (and the current politicization of the CIA), creates justifiable scepticism of current American intelligence claims, it is noteworthy that North Korea’s growing nuclear capabilities are also confirmed by International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed El Baradei. Mr. El Baradei has said he is sure that in the two years since his inspectors were ejected from North Korea the nuclear material his agency monitored has been converted into fuel for four to six nuclear bombs. His assessment aligns with private assessments of many American intelligence officials, although it goes well beyond anything the Central Intelligence Agency or President Bush and his aides have said in public.

It has been said that the retention of U.S. military bases in Japan no longer serves any significant strategic rationale for current American defense needs. But if the objective is to conduct the next major conflict with Pyongyang from the shores of Okinawa as opposed to Los Angeles, then these bases certainly have considerable attractions, not the least because over 60 per cent of the operating costs are underwritten by the Japanese government. The initial Japanese contribution, dubbed the “sympathy budget” in Tokyo (originally on the grounds that the American government told its Japanese counterpart it was experiencing budgetary difficulties following the Vietnam war and could no longer cover the cost of its bases in Japan), was introduced by the LDP in 1978 initially to cover the medical insurance of Japanese civilians working on the bases. But the size and scope of the Japanese government contribution has risen almost every year since 1978 even as the U.S. was ostensibly scaling down its post Vietnam overseas commitments. Additionally, as Japan scholar Chalmers Johnson notes, most of the land that the Americans occupy in Okinawa is still legally owned by 31,521 individuals or families who are forced by various laws to lease it to the Japanese government, which in turn sub-leases it to the Americans free of charge.

Moreover, under Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan has become one of the most outspoken supporters of the Bush administration’s global agenda, even to the point of enthusiastically committing troops to Iraq in spite of significant domestic political opposition. In early December of 2004, Mr Koizumi extended by a year the deployment of 550 ground troops in Iraq, the biggest and most controversial dispatch since the second world war. His government has also continued to push for a revision to the 57-year-old pacifist constitution that would enable more effective participation in such missions as a way of strengthening the U.S.-Japan alliance.

No post-war Japanese leader, not even the noted nationalist, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone, has gone as far as Koizumi. His government’s stance is in marked contrast to Tokyo’s reticence to commit anything beyond substantial sums of cash during Gulf War I, payments which were made under duress following some very open arm-twisting by then Secretary of State, James Baker.

Given the extent of Japan’s financial and (growing) military contribution to this effort, playing the nuclear card would seem a logical culmination of this cooperation, especially in light of Washington’s current military limitations, now vividly on display in Iraq. Japan’s potential arrival as a nuclear power, however, has implications well beyond North Korea.

Although the Bush administration may no longer refer to China as a “strategic competitor” as it did before the September 11, 2001 attacks, there is little evidence to suggest that it has undergone a Damascene conversion in respect of its relations with the PRC. Beijing has replaced Tokyo as Washington’s leading “unfair trade” bogeyman, presumably because although Japan’s bilateral surpluses with the U.S. remain significant, Tokyo can offer something in the way of a strategic quid pro quo -- clearly not the case with China.

Both the U.S. and Japan retain strong economic links with Taiwan and both regard Beijing’s increasing emergence as the new economic and political regional power of Asia with less than wholehearted enthusiasm. Even during the Clinton administration, the U.S. signed agreements with Japan undercutting the latter’s so-called “Pacifist constitution,” and securing Tokyo’s cooperation to help “protect” the Taiwan Straits.
China has vigorously protested any intrusion by the U.S. and its Japanese client into Taiwanese affairs, but to little avail. And Tokyo itself is beginning to shed its customary reticence in this area. It has risked provoking a downward spiral in its relations with Beijing with the announcement that it planned to grant a visa to Lee Teng-hui, Taiwan’s former President, to visit the country during December, 2004. And Prime Minister Koizumi has also made clear his intention to continue visiting the Yasukuni shrine, which China regards as a monument to Japanese militarism. Interestingly enough, public opinion polls in Japan show many more citizens supporting Mr Koizumi’s visits, as well supporting further cuts in development aid to China. This creates a political context that may render it easier for the government to embrace the nuclear option.

Equally significant, Japan’s most recent Strategic Defense Review named both North Korea and China as causes for security concern as it instigated an overhaul of defense priorities. The plan, to be executed with a budget of Y24,240bn ($230bn, ¤174bn, £120bn) over the next five years, cut from Y25,160bn for the current period, also aims to promote greater participation by Japanese forces in international peacekeeping operations.

The inclusion of China as a country that needs “carefully watching” follows a gradual build-up in tension between the two countries, particularly after the November 2004 incident in which a Chinese submarine was discovered in Japanese waters.

A private-sector committee that provided the basic recommendations for the five-year plan refrained from referring explicitly to China in its report. But recent spats appear to have stiffened Tokyo’s resolve and induced a more explicitly hostile policy stance. A senior defense policy official told Britain’s Financial Times: “There’s a growing mood in Japan that we ought to confront China. They keep coming into our zones and their activities are annoying us.” He added: “We are keenly aware of the growth of China’s military capabilities.” Beijing’s defense spending was much higher than it admitted, he said.

Part of Japan’s response to China and North Korea is to develop a joint missile defense system with the U.S. The new defense review outlines further funding for that program, as well as a partial lifting of a self-imposed arms-export ban in order to allow Tokyo to ship parts related to missile defense. It is easy to envisage how other self-imposed bans (such as the current one on nuclear weapons production) could be lifted in the future.

Before America went to war in Iraq, its military power seemed limitless. There was less need to actually apply it when all adversaries feared that any time Washington unsheathed the sword it would win. Now the limits on the country’s military manpower and its sustainability are all too obvious. For example, the Administration announced this summer that in order to maintain troop levels in Iraq, it would withdraw 12,500 soldiers from South Korea. The North Koreans, the Chinese, the Iranians, and other unnamed members of the “Axis of Evil” who have always needed to weigh the prospect of potential U.S. military intervention now realize that America has neither the stomach for additional wars, nor the ability to conduct them successfully.

Today’s situation is somewhat comparable to the period that existed during the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear annihilation clearly limited the prospect of direct military conflict with the former Soviet Union. The U.S. response to this strategic limitation was to conduct war by proxy in the developing world. Although the threat of “mutually assured destruction” has dissipated, the ongoing risks of “imperial overstretch” (given the scale of Washington’s current global strategic aspirations), make nuclear containment via client states a less economically taxing option for the U.S.

While the ‘realists’ of previous administrations tried to figure out how to follow the British strategy of surviving the downward glide-path of American power and protecting their class interests in the process, the neo-cons – and this is why they are ascendant – have made up their minds that they will keep that geo-political power at all costs. While the perceived immediate threat is North Korea, the ultimate threat in the eyes of the neo-cons is China. They continue to see China as a major strategic competitor, particularly as Beijing embarks on diplomatic efforts to win the hearts and minds of other Asian governments. With the exception of Japan, it is succeeding. Since Taiwan’s recent legislative election implicitly rejected President Chen Shui- bian’s call for moving toward independence, the prospects of a peaceful reunification with Taiwan have increased at some distant date in the future. Left to its own devices, China will become the diplomatic king of Asia cutting the U.S. out of the most dynamic region of the world (and the world’s largest repository of savings). In the eyes of Washington’s neo-cons, it is better to try and curb that growth sooner rather than later.

How to do it? Not by direct attack, but indirectly. Encouraging Japan to become an explicit nuclear power would be one means doing this in a relatively cost-effective manner. It would enhance Washington’s currently limited options in dealing with North Korea, while having the additional (and more important long term benefit) of curbing China’s strategic aspirations in the Asia/Pacific. We may still be a few years away from that prospect. But just as September 11, 2001, and Pearl Harbor have so often been described as “hinge events” that changed Americans’ previous assumptions, so too a decision by Japan to embrace the nuclear option would send comparable shockwaves around the Asia Pacific and beyond.


MARSHALL AUERBACK is a British-based international financial analyst who writes regularly for JPRI on economic and political developments in East Asia. His last article was “China Scrutinizes the Almighty Dollar” (October 2004).

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