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Monday 19 Mar 2018 | 04:09 | SYDNEY
Monday 19 Mar 2018 | 04:09 | SYDNEY

Japan's nukes: A response to Green



23 July 2008 12:01

Michael Green’s characteristically gracious and erudite post on my musings about Japan’s nuclear future brings onto the table two very important underlying questions about whether and in what circumstances Japan could acquire nuclear weapons. Why would Japan abandon an alliance with the US which has served it so well, he asks? And why would the US allow that to happen? Michael makes a compelling case that as things stand at present, both Japan and the US have strong interests in preserving a unique and remarkable strategic relationship which has been immensely beneficial to both countries, and has been vital to the security of the whole Asia-Pacific region.

But the devil is in those italics. My central thesis here is that China’s growth is imposing transformational pressures on Asia’s strategic system that are just as strong as the transformations it is driving in the economic system, because wealth and power are so intimately linked. So things won’t remain as they are, and we court disaster if we assume they can.

Michael says quite rightly that most Japanese would much prefer to stick with the US alliance and rely on US extended nuclear deterrence than to take the costly and risky path of throwing that all away to build their own nuclear capability. And of course he is right, as long as the Japanese continue to have faith that the US will always be there to support them in a crisis

But Japan’s faith in the credibility of the US strategic commitment to Japan comes under more and more pressure as China grows. Tokyo fears that the stronger China becomes, the higher the strategic and economic costs and risks to the US of courting trouble with China by backing Japan in a crisis, and the higher the risk that the US will prefer to press Japan to accommodate China’s demands than to take China on. Many in Japan already read the dynamics of the Six-Party Talks process in exactly this way, fearing that America and China have cooperated to do a deal which in all likelihood will leave North Korea with nuclear weapons which primarily threaten Japan.

Michael likewise wonders why America would abandon an alliance with Japan which has been so important to the position of primacy that Washington has enjoyed in Asia for decades. And of course that makes sense as long as America’s aim is to maintain its Asian primacy unchanged over coming decades. Michael seems absolutely sure that this is indeed America’s aim, and I am sure he speaks for many Americans on both sides of the political aisle in taking that view.

My fear is that the kind of consensual primacy that America has exercised in past decades will become increasingly unsustainable in the face of China’s growing power, and the US will be faced with a very hard choice. Michael sees that choice as one between sustaining US primacy or surrendering Asia to Chinese hegemony. I think there is a third option: joining a new order in Asia that accommodates China’s power, in which America still plays a vital role, not as the dominant player but as an essential counterweight to China. My model of this order is a ‘Concert of Asia’ which resembles more than anything else the concert system which kept the peace in Europe from 1815 to 1914. But for that to work Japan must join the concert as an independent strategic player, not a client of the US.

Either way, the new strategic system that will emerge in Asia in response to China’s growth will be very different from the one we know today — so different in fact that we may find ourselves accepting a Japanese nuclear capability as the least-bad way to deal with the otherwise insuperable problem of Japan’s security in the face of a rising China. I think Michael believes the opposite: that the institutions and structures that have kept Asia stable for the past thirty five years can continue to do so for the next few decades, despite the huge new fact of China’s power. I would be very happy if this could be right, because the past thirty five years have been a golden era for Asia, and for Australia. But to me it defies the laws of strategic gravity that Asia can keep on working in the same way when China has changed so much.

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