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Drop the Taboo, Talk About Japan Developing Nuclear Weapons




Once again, we hear the idea that “a nuclear-armed Japan is the anti-China card.” What concerns China more than anything is that Japan might develop a nuclear missile capability in response to North Korea. To get China on board in imposing sanctions on North Korea, it is necessary to do what might be colloquially described as “light a fire under the Chinese.” This is not a matter of just accepting the possibility of nuclear weapons for Japan but rather debating the necessity of proactively pushing ahead with nuclear armament.


In this context I recall a past exchange. Eight years ago, when the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals dispatched a group to the US headed by Yoshiko Sakurai, the issue of “a nuclear-armed Japan” came up among China experts who had also served in government. With one voice those experts said: “Japan has the wherewithal but not the intent. There is no dissent anywhere on this point. China has known this very well.” That is why the repeated American idea of a nuclear-armed Japan is a false hope.


Now that North Korea is literally threatening the very existence of Japan, it’s time to rethink how we approach the issue of nuclear armaments. While Japan has a “deterrence by denial” capability in terms of missile defense systems, it has followed a policy of relying entirely on the US and its nuclear umbrella for punitive deterrent. And, it is particularly clear that the object of any punitive action is not the general populace but the authoritarian leader and those around him. Ideally, a punitive strike will effectively neutralize the locus of command while keeping the damage inflicted on the general populace to the absolute minimum.



Neutralizing North Korea



We can only shake our head in response to Foreign Minister Taro Kono calling on the US to move toward rapid ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) during his August visit to the US. Although President Bill Clinton signed the CTBT, many Republicans opposed it, and the treaty was not ratified. The reason was that, in the future test explosions might be necessary for the development of new weapons by the US and its allies, and therefore the US ought not to tie its own hands. Further, it is to be noted that China has yet to ratify the treaty and North Korea is not even a signatory.


As a case in point, the following Republican Bush government pushed for the development of a new weapon called “The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP).” The envisioned use of this weapon was taking out the underground hiding places of the dictator and the core military installations of North Korea while minimizing aboveground damage. It was a weapon that aimed at instantly eliminating the command structure.


The idea was that a small nuclear weapon could neutralize a large volume of chemical and biological weapons with the heat wave it would generate. But the Bush administration took the stance that computer simulations were not enough to verify the effectiveness of the weapon and test explosions might be needed. As a consequence, ratification of the CTBT would go against the national interest.



In a context where the US and Japan are negotiating how to respond to the threats from North Korea, it is difficult to see any strategic merit in Japan calling on the US to ratify the CTBT. If in the future Japan decides to develop its own nuclear weapons, given the rejection of pre-emptive strikes, specializing in “earth penetrating type” weapons might well be an appropriate option.



If Japan is going to be making requests to the US, rather than calling for ratification of the CTBT, should it not be asking for data sharing and cooperative development of weapons to take out the underground command centers of the enemy?



In 1998, just after Pakistan had carried out the test of a nuclear weapon, Prime Minister Sharif of Pakistan said in an Asahi newspaper interview, “If Japan had had nuclear weapons and the wherewithal to make use of them, Hiroshima and Nagasaki probably would not have been bombed.”


Many Japanese have a latent recognition of this reality. That is why even while professing “strong anti-nuclear feelings” there has been continuing support for sheltering under the US nuclear umbrella.


Developing Conventional Weapons


In February of 1970, when Japan signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), it issued a statement that it “took note” of its right to withdraw from the Treaty as provided in Article 10. It provides that any state may leave with prior notification if “extraordinary events, related to the subject matter of this Treaty, have jeopardized the supreme interests of its country.”



At this very moment Japan is facing an extraordinary situation in which a singularly inhumane regime is deploying nuclear missiles in preparation for actual warfare. While it is argued that if Japan, as the only country to be a victim of nuclear weapons, were to withdraw from the NPT, this would inevitably lead to a worldwide wave of nuclear proliferation. For better or worse, Japan just does not have that kind of influence. The argument that sanctions by the international community will lead to the collapse of the Japanese economy is easily shown to be false by reference to the case of India.



In September 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency decided to give exceptional recognition within the terms of the NPT to India as a state possessing nuclear weapons along with the US, Russia, Britain, France, and China. This move for recognition was led by the Bush administration of the US.


Japan also voted in favor of recognition. China asserted that Pakistan should also be given similar exceptional recognition, but this was not done due to questions about Pakistan assisting North Korea and other countries to develop nuclear weapons in violation of the basic tenets of the NPT. It was here that the international pattern of not sanctioning “responsible countries” that possess nuclear weapons got its start.


Having said this, it is a fact that if the Prime Minister said anything about nuclear weapons, there would be total confusion in Japanese politics. Therefore, what I want from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is that he push for the development of conventional weapons that can be used to attack enemy military bases or command posts. In the course of doing this, it is likely that the necessity for debating the currently taboo matter of having nuclear arms will arise.  



B-1B Lancer bombers flanked by USMC F-35 Lightning II and JASDF F-2 fighters execute a bilateral mission over the Pacific Ocean, demonstrating the USs' ironclad commitment to our allies in the face of aggressive and unlawful North Korean missile tests. (Courtesy Photo by Japan Air Self Defense Force)  



Yoichi Shimada is a professor of International Politics at Fukui Prefectural University, Japan.



(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)





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