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Japan has little appetite for nukes, and that's good

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21 July 2008 10:49

Guest blogger: Michael Green (pictured) is Senior Advisor and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC and Associate Professor at Georgetown University. He served on the NSC staff from 2001 throught 2005.

My friend Hugh White has enjoyed opening the proverbial can of worms of late, but his post on Japan's nuclear option looks rather more like a bucket of snakes. That said, he is right to never say never when it comes to Japan and nuclear weapons. For decades, strategic luminaries from Herman Kahn to Henry Kissinger have argued that it would be illogical for Japan to recover full economic power without also considering the complementary military power that nuclear weapons would provide. 

Vice President Cheney said on national television in 2003 (to the great consternation of the Japanese government) that if North Korea's nuclear program went unchecked, Japan might be forced to develop its own nuclear weapons. Early post-war Japanese Prime Ministers like Nobusuke Kishi and Hayato Ikeda pondered whether Japan might be better off with its own nuclear deterrent during meetings with the American and French Presidents (Ike, Kennedy and Johnson discouraged the idea, but de Gualle reportedly thought it was terrific and encouraged Japan to go for it). 

By combining its nuclear power generation, space and inertial guidance technologies, Japan could probably have a credible nuclear weapons program up and running within a year or so, if not sooner. Just to be sure that China and the US don't forget this fact, the Japanese government has periodically conducted internal reviews of its nuclear options and leaked them to the press. So as the author of a book titled Japan's Reluctant Realism, I would be the last to argue that Japanese strategic culture is impervious to changes in the external security environment, even on the taboo subject of nuclear weapons. However, accepting the hypothetical possibility of Japanese nuclear armament does not mean that it is likely to happen, or that it is necessarily good for the international system, or that it bears consideration to accomodate China's rise. 

On the question of whether it will happen, it is worth considering that even after the North Korean nuclear weapons test in October 2006, over 70% of Japanese said they did not want their nation to possess nuclear weapons. The pacifist and anti-nuclear undertow is still very powerful in Japanese strategic culture. It is true that growing numbers of Japanese strategic thinkers are questioning the durability of the extended US nuclear deterrent in the face of Chinese nuclear weapons modernization and North Korea's efforts to marry nuclear weapons to long-range missiles. The taboo about publicly discussing nuclear weapons has weakened, with conservative journals dedicating whole issues to the subject. 

But a survey of the literature reveals little appetite for independent nuclear weapons at the cost of the US nuclear umbrella. Even the most hawkish advocates of nuclear weapons in Japan argue for developing ballistic missile submarines jointly with the US or developing a 'German option' of dual-keyed tactical nuclear weapons for use by Japanese pilots with US technical support. The first, second and third choice for Japan will always be to reinforce or hedge against US extended deterrent, rather than throwing America's enormous capabilities away for a unilateral deterrent in a country that has all the wrong geography for survivability. That means the US government will have numerous warnings and options to accomodate Japanese concerns short of nuclear armament by Japan. 

Would it be good for the international system? I suppose I could imagine a scenario down the road where the 'German option' might make sense in the event that North Korea does successfully marry nuclear weapons to a Taepodong missile capable of hitting the US (and raising decoupling fears in Japan). But US strategy has moved beyond forward-deployed tactical nuclear weapons, and the far more likely response would be a change in declaratory policy and doctrine with respect to longer range strike options -- and greater inclusion of Japan in US nuclear strategy formulation in terms of both declaratory policy and doctrine. 

If Japan were encouraged to have its own nuclear weapons it is hard to see how that would be better for the system, though Hugh is in some good company with people like John Mearsheimer in arguing that it would. The main reason it would not be good is that the threshold for nuclear weapons would be lowered to the point where the Republic of Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia and (dare I say) even Australia could not ignore the option. Proliferation would become a serious problem even among allies because Washington would lose escalation control and none of these countries trusts the other as much as they do the US. So while I would not argue that Japan cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons, I would argue that security in Asia would be far worse off.

But why even consider this future at all if the premise is that we need Japan to have nuclear weapons as part of a larger US strategy to accomodate the rise of China? The US is not going to accomodate the rise of China by handing away alliances and other assets of national power. Nothing in American history points to that scenario (including the interwar years, because even in the midst of isolationism the US fought numerous ugly little wars to keep solid control over its spheres of influence in Latin America and the Philippines).  The one example we have of a peaceful and deliberate power transition was from Britain to the US at the end of the 19th century, and that was possible because London knew that common values and a transparent political system in Washington would allow Britain to bind US power.

That does not mean conflict is inevitable between the US and China. After all, this is not just a bipolar game between Washington and Beijing. Other actors in the system like India, Japan, the ROK, and Indonesia are all engaged in subtle games to balance Chinese influence even as they increase economic interdependence. The last thing any of these countries want is for the US to turn over hegemonic power to an actor with an uncertain political future and a past in which they figured primarily as tributary states. China's neighbors may not all align with the US, but most of them are making darned sure that a healthy balance of power continues in the region.

Is it possible that the US could mess this all up and propel Japan down the path to nuclear weapons? Sure. But it is far from inevitable, and developing strategies around a series of tenuous premises about the effect of China's rise would be a bad idea. Of course, the argument doesn't make for bad bloggery and it certainly forces some useful questions about the fundamentals of peace and stability in Asia.

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