TIME FOR JAPAN TO SHOULDER GREATER INTERNATIONAL RESPONSIBILITY
The most meaningful outcome of US President Joe Biden’s recent visit to South Korea and Japan was the resolve he voiced to address China’s threat to Taiwan. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine now ongoing, Biden was asked if the US would intervene militarily if China were to invade Taiwan: “Yes,” he said “that’s the commitment we made.”
Biden made this remark on May 23 during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, further stating: “We agree with the One China Policy…but the idea that it can be taken by force is just not appropriate.”
It was an important statement, but there were no follow-up questions from the journalists present. In some quarters it was simply regarded as another “slip of the tongue” from Biden. However, Biden had said something similar twice before—last August 19 and October 21. I believe his declaration of commitment, repeated three times over the past ten months, deserves due attention.
It would be more appropriate to regard his remarks as indicating the US resolve to switch its “strategy of ambiguity” toward Taiwan to a more explicit policy of “strategic clarity.” Japan should base its Taiwan strategy on such a thinking, as a military attack on Taiwan is tantamount to a military attack on Japan, geographically speaking.
Toshi Yoshihara, an American naval strategy expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, points out that the Chinese are convinced the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Forces (JMSDF) would be unable to defeat the People’s Liberation Army Navy (Peoples Liberation Army Navy) in naval battles which necessitate the use of an exorbitant volume of long-range, hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. Not only that, Yoshihara observes that China is boasting that, in case of a clash with the US-Japan alliance it would be capable of demolishing all the US military bases across the Western Pacific by first attacking US military bases in Japan. A crisis in Taiwan is a crisis for the US-Japan alliance, indeed. That is why Japan must prepare for the worst-case scenario by conducting discussions with the US for concrete plans to jointly defend Taiwan.
But the present situation in Taiwan is far from easy. In the combat theater surrounding Taiwan, China has a far larger number of military aircraft and ships than those of the US, Japan, and Taiwan combined. China already has some 1,250 medium-range missiles in place. The US has none at this stage, although it has been racing against the clock to manufacture them. “China has a huge stock of strategic nuclear warheads to be mounted on those missiles—at least several hundred of them,“ observes Sugio Takahashi, head of the Research Section, the National Institute of Defense Studies in Tokyo.
The US does have several hundred strategic nuclear warheads, Takahashi notes, adding however that they are inferior in mobility to their Chinese counterparts because they must first be carried onboard fighters before being fired.
Likelihood of Using Nuclear Weapons
Under such circumstances, Japan must take into account a host of matters it has never addressed before. Firstly, there is the danger of Russia possibly using nuclear weapons in its war against Ukraine. Former Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera, who visited Washington for consultations with important US military experts earlier this month, quoted them as telling him in essence:
“What should the US do if Russia, driven into a disadvantageous situation in its war against Ukraine, attempts to use nuclear weapons in order to turn the tide? We can’t just say, ‘Okay, Ukraine. We’ll keep providing you weapons and other resources, so please do your best.’ Don’t you think the US would have to retaliate with nuclear weapons? In the event a nuclear retaliation were to be made, the US would not make the decision arbitrarily. We will consult with Ukraine and our allies, including Japan.”
Onodera admitted that he was surprised that discussions are being held in the US on whether and how nukes would actually be used in the battlefield. About the discussions he had in the US, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had this to say on May 20 when he appeared as a guest on my “Genron” Internet news show:
“I think it is very important to carefully consider the remarks of the US officials Onodera conferred with and what they really means. Even tactical and small nuclear weapons are capable of killing several thousand people. Onodera’s hosts were in effect asking Japan and other American allies to share responsibilities for the expected deaths. It means America will not assume responsibility alone for using nukes. I think it was a warning that Japan should not turn its face from reality.”
How then should Japan reply to the US? Three of the nation’s top defense experts shared their views:
“Japan is not in a position to say anything regarding this matter,” said Kiyofumi Iwata, former Chief of Staff, the Japan Ground Self Defense Forces (JGSDF). “We don’t even have the ability to explore the matter.”
“Japan would have no idea how to respond to this sort of a question,” snapped Kuniko Oda, a former general of the Japan Air Self-Defense Forces (JASDF) who serves as a special professor at Reitaku University in Tokyo. “Strategic thinking and any meaningful policy debate on nuclear deterrence are completely absent in Japan.”
Meanwhile, Takahashi stated: “It would depend on who the prime minister was.”
Fumio Kishida, Japan’s incumbent prime minister, cherishes the “three Non-Nuclear Principles” (non-production, non-possession, and non-introduction of nuclear arms”) as Japan’s national credo. A politician hailing from Hiroshima who claims to be committed to “continuing to aim for a world without nuclear weapons,” Kishida has announced that the G7 summit will be held in his hometown next year, when Japan is scheduled to serve as the host country.
No one would oppose the ideals Kishida is promoting. But there are two problems. First, he has so far failed to lay out a realistic plan for action. If he truly wishes to pursue a total abolition of nukes, he must declare concrete measures rather than just repeating idealistic phrases. Second, he also has the responsibility to discuss what his specific plans are to protect Japan and its people in the interim before total nuclear abolition is achieved. A “significant” increase in our defense outlay is only among a few conceivable means of protecting our people and our territory. He has to explain specifically how the JSDF and the people of Japan are expected to act if we were subjected to a military attack. We must bolster our capabilities to defend ourselves at all costs with the government in the vanguard of that endeavor.
Japan as Truly Independent Nation
China’s autocratic dictator Xi Jinping will never give up his plan to invade Taiwan. Our basic strategy for coping with this threat must therefore be to create a defense structure that will allow us to respond militarily as appropriate in any situation—just as any other “normal2 country would. In order to make this possible, we must first revise the constitution. As regards our three non-nuclear principles, we should have vigorous discussion on whether it would be wise to eliminate one or two of the principles to enable Japan to implement nuclear sharing with the US.
But Biden this time emphasized the firmness of America’s extended deterrence backed by its nuclear weapons, showing no signs of recognizing the possibility of Japan sharing nuclear weapons with the US or possessing nuclear weapons outright on its own—ideas that are now beginning to be talked about in Japan.
In October 2006, then US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hurriedly flew to Tokyo to peremptorily discourage discussions in Japan on its possible possession of nuclear weapons. Washington was greatly alarmed by just what outspoken conservative Shoichi Nakagawa (1953-2009) had to say about the need for Japan to discuss nuclear weapons in earnest immediately following North Korea’s first nuclear test earlier that month. Something similar is happening in Japan today.
Under the current unstable international situation, it is natural for any independent nation to explore what it can do to protect its people and secure its national interest. But by expecting Japan to secure the foundation of its security by resorting to America’s extended deterrence and its own non-nuclear principle without taking further security measures, the US is in effect telling Japan it need not think earnestly about the ultimate threat to its security. Conversely, the afore-mentioned US posture of expecting its allies to share responsibility for its use of nukes is a demand that will force Japan to grapple squarely with just such a situation. Clearly the US is contradicting itself, confused about what specific role it wishes Japan to play as an ally. It is high time for Japan, which is belatedly beginning to seriously face up to the challenges of its national defense, to put on the table with Washington concrete proposals that are aimed at qualifying Japan as a truly independent nation.
The US needs Japan as a good ally and collaborator. In order to support the alliance and defend itself at all costs, Japan would do well to become a stronger nation capable of fulfilling its growing international responsibility as a leader in Asia. It is indeed time for vigorous no-holds-barred discussion on our defense, including nukes.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 1,001 in the July 2, 2022 issue of The Weekly Shincho)