Zachary Keck

Japan and China’s Dispute Goes Nuclear

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Zachary Keck

Japan and China’s Dispute Goes Nuclear

Japan and China’s bitter PR campaign has now entered the nuclear realm.

Japan and China’s Dispute Goes Nuclear
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Japan and China appear to be trading nuclear barbs with one another.

For some weeks now, China has been raising concerns about the amount of enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium Japan currently stockpiles. “We continue to urge the Japanese government to take a responsible attitude and explain itself to international community,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said at the end of last month.

The following week, the same spokesperson asked: “Has Japan kept an excessive amount of sensitive nuclear material that is beyond its actual needs? Does one need so much sensitive nuclear material for peaceful use? Should one keep excessive weapons-grade nuclear material?” He added: “More importantly, does Japan have higher-enriched and weapons-grade uranium, and how much does it have? What are those used for? How can Japan ensure a balance between the demand and supply of nuclear materials? These are the real concerns and questions of the international community.”

Japan has one of the most advanced civilian nuclear programs of any country without nuclear weapons. According to NBC News, Tokyo has 9 tons of plutonium stockpiled in different places throughout Japan, while 35 tons of Japanese plutonium is stockpiled in different countries in Europe. Only about 5 to 10 kilograms is needed to produce a nuclear weapon. Japan also has an additional 1.2 tons of enriched uranium. It is also building a fast-breeder plutonium reactor in Rokkasho that will produce 8 tons of plutonium annually.

Many experts believe that Japan could produce nuclear weapons within 6 months of deciding to do so, and some believe that Tokyo is pursuing a “nuclear hedging” strategy. Japan has done little to mollify these concerns. In fact, it has often encouraged them, with a Japanese official recently saying off the record that “Japan already has the technical capability [to build a nuclear bomb], and has had it since the 1980s.”

Having a “bomb in the basement” largely suits Japan’s interests in its competition with China. By indulging Beijing’s concerns that Japan may build nuclear weapons, Tokyo is hoping to deter China from racketing up bilateral tensions too heavily. At the same, Tokyo is hoping to use its nuclear hedge strategy as leverage over the U.S. to ensure that Washington stays engaged in region.

Still, Japan has to walk a fine line in pursuing this strategy as no other issue—with the possible exception of revisionist history—unites Northeast Asia against Japan more than its possible nuclear weapons ambitions. Besides China, both North and South Korea also have grave concerns about Japan going nuclear. Similarly, pushing its nuclear hedge strategy too far could upset the U.S. to the point where it becomes less willing to back Japan on other issues.

Besides China’s desire to raise concerns about Japan’s possible nuclear ambitions, new reports suggest that Tokyo is seeking to use Beijing’s nuclear arsenal to pressure it. According to Kyodo News Agency, a draft statement for the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative meeting next month may call on China to join U.S.-Russian arms control talks. The meeting is being held in Hiroshima, and Kyodo suggests that Japan is the driving force behind the effort to urge China to engage in multilateral arms reduction negotiations.

To this point, China has refused to enter into nuclear reduction talks with the U.S. and Russia, insisting instead that Washington and Moscow make further reductions to their arsenals before it will commit to its own cuts. In some ways, this seems entirely justifiable given that Russia and the U.S. still control about 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapon stockpiles. However, in the face of China’s growing conventional military power, Russia has stated that it will no longer agree to more nuclear weapons cuts unless they are done in a multilateral forum.

For Japan’s purposes, including China in the draft statement is probably more of a public relations stunt, in the same vein as China’s decision to raise concerns about Japan’s longstanding civilian nuclear program. Thus, the bitter public relations war between China and Japan seems to be going nuclear, so to speak.