A Nuclear Japan: When the Impossible becomes Plausible August 6, 2009Posted by Sean Varner in Asia, China, History, Japan, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
Tags: arms control, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, NPT, Nuclear Deterrent, Nuclear Weapons
[This article was picked up by the Center for Vision and Values and is available here: http://www.visandvals.org/A_Nuclear_Japan.php]
Sixty-four years ago this week, on August 6th and 9th, the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devastated by the first and only use of nuclear weapons in war. The death toll totaled approximately 200,000 or more. The shock of the unprecedented destructiveness of the weapon, combined with the Soviet declaration of war, compelled Tokyo to announce its surrender several days later. Emperor Hirohito, in his radio address to the nation, stated “the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb.”
The turbulent and traumatizing experience of that week has led analysts to conclude for over six decades that Japan would never “go nuclear” and develop its own bomb. Indeed, this has been reinforced by Japanese actions. Japan is a leading advocate of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that allows only five nations (U.S., U.K., Russia, France, and China) to possess nuclear weapons and every year introduces a resolution in the United Nations calling for global nuclear disarmament.
There is, however, another side to Japan’s position. As North Korea grows increasingly provocative and China continues to build up its nuclear forces, Japan has found itself confronted with a more threatening security environment. Moreover, drastic reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, brought about by arms control treaties with Russia, have heightened Tokyo’s concern about the reliability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella. As one Japanese official has commented, “we could afford to sleep during the Cold War; we cannot afford to sleep now.” The previous taboo on even discussing a Japanese nuclear deterrent has already been broken with prominent Japanese lawmakers and politicians debating it in response to North Korean and Chinese actions.
Tokyo justifiably feels threatened by Pyongyang and Beijing yet is almost completely dependent on Washington for deterrence. Japanese officials stated to the Strategic Posture Commission that the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella was dependent on its “specific capabilities to hold a wide variety of targets at risk.” It was greatly concerned when President Bush cut nuclear warheads to 2,200. If President Obama cuts warheads without consulting Tokyo to below 1,700, as the preliminary START agreement outlines, Japanese officials may perceive the U.S. extended deterrent to be insincere and unreliable.
If Japan were to make the decision to go nuclear, the consequences would be far-reaching. First, the NPT would collapse. Japan has served as the epitome of nonproliferation and, as the only victim of nuclear attack, carried a moral authority in its calls for nuclear disarmament. Without that voice, the NPT becomes a meritless system of haves and have-nots. Second, a nuclear arms race would seem almost inevitable. Not only would China and North Korea respond by ramping up their capabilities, but this would likely cause South Korea and Taiwan to go nuclear as well. The spillover effects would likely ratchet up the nuclear arms race between India and Pakistan too.
Of course, despite these potential causes of proliferation, Japan seems to have every reason to remain non-nuclear. As Takashi Yokota of Newsweek has argued, less than a fifth of Japanese support building the bomb, the island nation lacks the physical space to test a nuclear weapon, and it is dependent on nuclear fuel (supplied by the U.S., Australia, and Canada) for about a third of its electricity supply. Not only is it therefore impractical, but the resulting arms race and cutoff of its fuel sources would likely leave Japan much less secure than it is now.
Could Japan really go nuclear? An affirmative answer seems possible in only one situation: the U.S. neglects its responsibilities. By not addressing Tokyo’s security concerns and consulting it prior to the START arms reductions, the U.S. may be forcing Japan to make the least miserable choice out of a list of bad options. Japan has enough stored plutonium for at least a thousand nuclear warheads. It has remained non-nuclear under a firm U.S. commitment to its defense. If it goes nuclear, the United States will have no one to blame but itself.