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Japan’s Nuclear Moment

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Tokyo Report

Japan’s Nuclear Moment

Geopolitical trends have combined to open a window of opportunity for Japan to become a nuclear state.

Japan’s Nuclear Moment
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Rikujojieitai Boueisho

If Japan wanted to develop nuclear weapons, there would be no better moment than now to start. As the North Korean regime grows desperate to get a more generous ransom against its nuclear program, the threat it poses to Tokyo is multiplying. Last week Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, warned that North Korea is preparing the capability to launch missiles carrying the chemical weapon sarin against Tokyo.

U.S. President Donald Trump further added to the turmoil by declaring last week that an “armada” of American military vessels was heading to the Korean peninsula, only to be contradicted by his own military, which broke the news days later that the “armada” was sailing near Singapore, over 3,000 miles away from the Korean peninsula. At the time Trump boasted of the “armada,” it reportedly was travelling in the opposite direction. So much for the credibility of the American extended deterrence, which should guarantee the security umbrella over Japan, a policy in force since 1975. Now, both South Korea and Japan feel cheated and let down, while the U.S. administration was caught red-handed in a bluff. A truly embarrassing situation, indeed.

In the meantime, Japan must take into account China’s aggressive assertiveness in the region, its continued building of artificial islands in the South China, and unilaterally enforced new Air Defense Identification Zone over the sea, and its claims over various islands and archipelago also claimed by its neighbors – not just Japan, but also Vietnam, South Korea, and the Philippines. Added to this is the apparent inability of now two consecutive U.S. administrations to curb the security dilemma that ensues from these Chinese actions, which contributes to the sense of insecurity and urgent necessity for Japan to take its national security in its own hands.

In a growing multipolar and multiregional “G-Zero” world, to use the title of a popular book, missed opportunities will be costly. Much more so when the survival of a nation is at stake. Thus, the arguments against a Japanese nuclear program that rely on the high cost – political and financial – for joining the nuclear club lose persuasiveness vis-a-vis the even bigger threat that China and North Korea pose to Japan’s future, and the growing ambivalence of the United States to its security commitments in the region. In politics in general, and in international relations particularly, talk is cheap, but the cost for being “duped” is steep.

There are a number of predicaments that Japan would have to face if it were ever to develop nuclear weapons, and they all are serious and valid. These challenges are political, financial, technological, and social.

It will not be easy for Abe to push through the Diet a bill that would open the door for nuclear armament, even though arguably the Japanese Constitution does not prevent the possession of nuclear weapons, per se. Until recently, however, some believed that destroying the pillars of pacifism in Japan – Article 9 of the Constitution – and having an army that could be deployed beyond the country’s borders was also impossible. They now seem to have been proven wrong.

As for the cost, it will certainly not be cheap, either; a few billion dollars just to start. But in light of Trump’s push for Japan to pay more for its security, anyway, it may prove cheaper in the long run for Abe to invest in increasing Japan’s own defense capabilities, rather than paying the money toward a U.S. security umbrella that with every single day becomes more and more unreliable.

Developing nuclear weapons, even for one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world, will be not just expensive, but also a challenging task. Japan, being an island, may need to mount a number of missiles on submarines as its best option for nuclear deterrence, and deploy them in deep waters near its coasts. The current impressive fleet of submarines at the disposal of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force, or JMSDF, is diesel propelled,. The JMSDF has no vessels with nuclear propulsion. This may delay an actual nuclear deterrent, but it is unlikely to prove insurmountable altogether. In addition, the country actually has the required raw material. Currently, Japan continues to stockpile depleted plutonium from its nuclear power plants, which can be enriched to weapon grade.

It’s true that Japanese society is largely against nuclear weapons, not only because of the fact that Japan is the only country to have suffered a nuclear attack, but also due to the general isolationist and pacifist political identity of the majority of Japanese. However, this could quickly change and give way to greater support for nuclear weapons as a result of the growing threat from North Korea. Kim Jong-un is growing desperate to prove his credibility, and — like a thug who cuts a finger or an ear from his kidnapped victim as a proof of his resolve — he too may launch a missile or two against Japan or South Korea, by mistake or by miscalculation, in an attempt to win the  current nuclear game of chicken. Either way, not many Japanese will feel suicidal when faced with the choice to support a nuclear program or risk being randomly annihilated by North Korean bombs, or for that matter Chinese aggression.

Trump himself inadvertently opened the possibility for a Japanese nuclear program when, on the campaign trail, he urged the country to “go nuclear.” Although he has corrected his stance since, just a month ago, during his first visit to Tokyo, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson once again hinted that “circumstances could evolve” to allow a Japanese nuclear arsenal. It seems that Japan, indeed, is in a “nuclear moment.”

The decision for Japan to begin developing nuclear weapons is first and foremost a political one, and would rest on a careful cost-benefits calculation, an assessment of risks, a political will, and the availability of a window of opportunity.

At this moment, the cost still seems to outweigh the benefits. In the event of Japan becoming a nuclear state, the outcry from its neighbors would be enormous, and that is not limited only to the two Koreas and China. Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia will not be willing to look with an understanding or forgiving eye on a nuclear Japan, either. Russia will be highly alarmed, too. It is possible that the United States may take action against Japan, such as withdrawing from the security alliance. All this will most likely also result in a series of putative economic measures. China and the United States are currently the two largest commercial partners of Japan, and any retaliatory actions against Tokyo may cause a serious economic shock to a country already struggling economically.

However, despite the risks, there are indications that Tokyo is already tacitly considering the current “window of opportunity.” The decision to begin reprocessing spent fuel domestically from mid-2018, in the Rokkashu-mura facility in the northern Aomori prefecture, instead of relying on other countries such as U.K. and France as before, has raised the suspicion of many analysts and watchdog organizations that some circles in Tokyo are already preparing to “go nuclear.” And the episode of the forgotten 640 kilograms of plutonium that the Japanese Atomic Energy Agency accidentally omitted from its yearly voluntarily declaration to International Atomic Energy Agency in 2014 has added to the speculations that the country is actually planning something murky for the near future.

Even high officials are beginning to openly talk about a possible nuclear option. Politicians close to Abe — including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, who also serves as finance minister; Yusuke Yokobatake, who heads the Cabinet Legislation Bureau; Tomomi Inada, who is the defense minister and a possible candidate for future prime minister; and even the ever-skillful diplomat Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida — have made a number of claims over the past year or so that acquiring nuclear weapons is not actually against the Constitution, and is a possible option for the government to pursue.

A decision by the Japanese government to take advantage of this window of opportunity and begin preparation to join the nuclear states would be akin to an investor’s attempt to hedge the risks for his investments in times of apparent market turmoil. When the market has a bubble, the worst long-term strategy would be to keep all investments into that bubble; they may seem to be yielding high returns now, but the bubble could burst at any minute, taking all with it. Miscalculate a trend for a bubble, though, and sell too early, and the investor will see his investments reduced significantly, or worse. No investor is protected against the dangers of the market. But, arguably, a good investor should remain vigilant for the trends, and recognize when a window of opportunity opens.

Today, perhaps for a first time since the end of the World War II, such a window of opportunity has opened in front of Japan and has offered Tokyo the chance to take the matter of its national security into its own hands. Unlike investment strategies, a failure to act upon an opportunity regarding matters of national security – as history teaches us – usually ends either with the death of a state, or with a permanent loss of its ability to remain in control of its own destiny. Once the moment passes, the state’s destiny is set; until, at least, either another window of opportunity arises or the next structural shift of power distribution – usually through a hegemonic war or other major calamity – happens.

When troubles brew, the best approach would be to act with prudence and not to fully rely on others. As Thomas Hobbes once observed about a similar dilemma in nature, it pays off to carry an umbrella even on a sunny day.

Liubomir K. Topaloff, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Political Science at the School of Political Science and Economics, Meiji University.