Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 01:37 | SYDNEY
Sunday 22 Jul 2018 | 01:37 | SYDNEY

No regional security without a secure Japan


Hugh White

18 July 2008 09:20

Sam raises two related points in his responses to my posts on the pressures that might see Japan build nuclear weapons.  He asks what Japan would need nuclear weapons for, and why a Japan that was less dependent on the US for its security couldn’t do without nukes, as other non-nuclear countries with bolshie nuclear-armed neighbours have done – like Sweden. Good questions.

What might Japan need nuclear weapons for? Sam notes that without US extended deterrence or nuclear weapons of their own, Japan would be ‘at the mercy of China’s nuclear weapons, with no means of striking back’. He seems to think that would be OK for the Japanese. What after all would they have to fear? Hmm. Ask the next Japanese you meet how they feel about that. 

 I think at the minimum they would fear that in any dispute between them, the threat of Chinese nuclear attack would hang over them and force concessions. There are strong precedents: the US used nuclear threats against a then non-nuclear China over Taiwan in the 1950s. Sam might say that the 1950s was different – a more tense and contested strategic era. He might be able to argue that if we could be sure that the next thirty or forty years in Asia turns out to be much like the last couple of decades, Japan could live without a nuclear deterrent. But that of course is precisely the question that is up for grabs – how stable and orderly will Asia be?  How might China be able to use nuclear weapons to coerce and dominate Japan?

So what about Sweden? I don't think it is a compelling counter-example. I’m not an expert on such things, but it has always seemed to me that the Swedes were in fact covered by American extended deterrence vis a vis the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Was it possible that Moscow could have threatened or used nuclear (or large-scale conventional) forces against Sweden without Washington becoming engaged? I do not think so. This was not because of warm relations between the US and Sweden, but the depth of enmity between the US and the Soviets. In an Asian order in which the US and China had a lot in common – and that is the hypothesis – Japan would rightly feel much less sure of US support against China than Sweden could have against the Soviets.

In the end it will be the Japanese themselves who will decide how they would respond if they lose the US nuclear umbrella. So what matters for my analysis is what they will think. Sam’s points are important because they show that it is not inevitable that Japan would take the nuclear road. But when one reflects on the deep mutual animosities between China and Japan, on Japan’s insecurities about its place in the international order, on the additional threats posed by Russia and North Korea, on Japan’s sense of unique nuclear victimhood, and the simple fact that, for Japan, building nuclear weapons is technically and fiscally so easy, then the likelihood that they would choose this route seems to me to be high.

Of course, that still does not mean they would be right to do so. But the reason I think we might find ourselves concluding that a nuclear-armed Japan would, on balance, help stabilize the international order in Asia in coming decades is that, to be stable, the order needs to feel stable to those involved, and especially to the biggest powers. And Japan will be a very big power for a long time to come.  I can’t see how the rest of us can be secure unless the Japanese feel secure.