The cause of the huge explosion at Ryongchon in North Korea remains a mystery, but has focussed attention on the secretive totalitarian regime of Kim Jong-il, which has been involved in nuclear weapons testing, offensive missile production and drug-running. Dr Sharif Shuja explains.
North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile program poses a direct security threat to Japan, as Japan is within striking range of Pyongyang’s Rodong missiles. Japan has the technology to quickly convert its space program to the production of advanced missiles.
Over the years, several Japanese Prime Ministers have canvassed the possibility of obtaining nuclear weapons for defensive purposes and staying within the constraints imposed by Japan’s post-war constitution. In 1969, there was even an official report recommending that Japan embark on a weapons program.
In 1993, the then Foreign Minister, Kabun Muto, argued that a nuclear weapons capability would be important if Japan faced a severe threat. But many Japanese remain opposed to going nuclear. So far as is known, no weapons program has been undertaken.
Japan is now thinking only to acquire a sophisticated missile defence system. This capacity will protect her against incoming missiles. In fact, Japan’s Cabinet decided on December 19, 2003, to work with the United States to deploy a ballistic missile defence system (BMD). This decision is a significant shift from its “pacifist” stance and is likely to have far-reaching implications for security in the Asia-Pacific region.
Until now, Japan’s work on missile defence, spurred by North Korea’s test of a long-range missile in 1998, has been limited to research and development.
Under the plan, Tokyo will contribute ¥100 billion to acquire key US-made technologies, with a further ¥600 billion contribution expected over the next five years. Washington will provide substantial technological support for Tokyo’s BMD project.
The shield will include Standard Missile-3 (SM-3), to be launched from Aegis-equipped naval destroyers to intercept ballistic missiles, and Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missiles to shoot down any remaining missiles from the ground.
While “pacifists” and “Gaullists” still abound in Japan, the BMD issue has not been put to a stringent public opinion test in the way Prime Minister Koizumi’s pro-US stance has been.
China has frequently expressed concern about Japan and US collaboration on missile defence, warning it would have “negative effects on regional stability and security”.
However, Japanese Defence Minister Shigeru Ishiba rejected complaints that the move would threaten regional stability. “We don’t need to shoot interceptor missiles if they don’t launch their missiles, so I think the nature of the system is entirely defensive, thus constitutionally possible, and it matches with Japan’s exclusively defensive posture”, he said.
Mr Ishiba also acknowledged that Washington regarded Tokyo’s participation in the missile defence project as a litmus test of its commitment to the US-Japan alliance.
The Japanese Foreign Minister said on December 19 that “Japan has been conducting technological research of BMD with the United States and has now come to the conclusion that it is desirable to introduce the system for the purpose of enhancing peace and security of the nation and for strengthening the Japan-US Security Alliance”.
The multi-layer defence system will consist of the Aegis BMD know-how and the Patriot PAC-3 equipment, both of US origin. The details of the BMD installation would be decided by the end of 2004, the statement said.
Cognisant of the shockwaves that the move could send across the Asia-Pacific region, the Koizumi administration took care to emphasise that the move was entirely “defensive” and that it would have “no threatening implication for the neighbouring countries and areas and no ill-effect on the stability in the region”.
“As and when necessary, Japan would explain its position so as to gain international understanding”, it added.
As of now, two aspects of the decision on the BMD system stand out. First, the Japan-US alliance accounts for not only the BMD’s perceived viability but also Tokyo’s decision to send troops to Iraq on a non-combat mission at this stage.
According to analysts in the region, Tokyo’s decision regarding Iraq has something to do with the need to stay on the right side of the US and to be counted upon for “reconstruction contracts”, especially in view of the Bush dictum of exclusiveness in such matters.
Referring to US-Tokyo ties on the eve of the 21st century, Yoichi Funabashi and others in the Japanese strategic affairs community had spoken of an “alliance adrift”. In mid-2003, Yutaka Kawashima, a former Japanese diplomat who had risen to the rank of Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs, examined various scenarios before concluding that “all sorts of reservations and criticism in Japan itself regarding US actions will be vociferously expressed”. However, in his opinion, “Japan’s best option seems to be to work closely with the United States”.
The second aspect is that the new system could either be a forerunner of, or indeed become an integral part of, the theatre missile defence system (TMD) proposed by the US in the Asia-Pacific region.
Japan has been undertaking joint technological research just on TMD, covering US military forces in Japan. TMD, which had focused on short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, is now likely to merge with a program targeting intercontinental missiles. The Japan-US research being conducted on sea-based systems will become part of the missile defence program as a whole.
Japan’s decision to develop this ballistic missile defence system could pressure Australia to join this system. One of the results of the September 11 attacks could well be the beginning of Japan’s remilitarisation and Japan’s closer military cooperation with its allies.
Mr Koizumi, in an official visit to Australia on May 1, 2002, declared that “joint security talks between top-level officials from the US, Japan and Australia are to become a permanent feature of the strategic dialogue in East Asia”.
While Canberra welcomes this development, Beijing, of course, will be wary. Beijing fears that any interlocking of the web of US alliances in the region could in future constitute a strategy of containment aimed at China. Its concerns are akin to those of Russia, which confronts NATO enlargement into Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. Neither wants to find itself isolated.
China is already worried about the US-Japan missile defence deal. The TMD is a project for “defence” of the United States and its allies, such as Japan and Australia, against rogue countries like North Korea. The risk is that it will antagonise China, whose relatively few nuclear missiles would be rendered impotent were an anti-missile shield ever to work.
The mere threat of deployment would therefore encourage China to build more missiles, setting off an arms race in Asia, and this will play into the hands of those within Beijing’s leadership that are looking for “an American enemy” to solidify their own domestic political positions on the basis of uncompromising nationalism.
All of these factors have to be balanced in any consideration of a theatre missile defence system.
The reasons for Japan’s firm adherence to its American alliance are easy enough to see. Japan is an ally, and American military bases are located on its soil.
Tokyo has long centred its foreign policy on its bilateral relationship with the United States, a stance supported by the majority of the Japanese.
This relationship took its present shape during the decades of the Cold War, and discussions of it within Japan are still based largely on perceptions rooted in the structures of the Cold War era.
Despite some irritations over trade and the presence of American troops, especially those in Okinawa, Japan is strategically more dependent on the US than it was during the Cold War, and that dependence is likely to grow rather than diminish during the next two or three decades. The Cold War is long gone.
The war on terrorism is the new paradigm. Japan’s national interest suggests that Tokyo should maintain its close alliance with Washington for the future.
- Dr Sharif Shuja teaches at the University of Melbourne