Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 19:47 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 19:47 | SYDNEY

A nuclear Japan: The least bad option?


Hugh White

17 July 2008 10:12

I'm very sympathetic to many of  the points Crispin makes in his response to my musings on Japan and nuclear weapons. Clearly there would be real costs and risks in Japan acquiring nuclear weapons. And just to be absolutely clear, I am not advocating that they should, and certainly not now. My point is a little more indirect: strategic affairs in Asia are entering new and unfamiliar territory in which many of our old assumptions may prove invalid; in this new Asia we may find that the least bad option is for Japan to become a nuclear power, notwithstanding the kinds of issues that Crispin raises.   

However, it is also fair to say that I weigh some of the factors Crispin mentions a little differently. Let’s look first at the risks that a Japanese nuclear capability would pose to the regional and global non-proliferation regime. There are three points to be made here. First, we can all agree that the world would be a much better place without any nuclear weapons, and as long as we have to live with them, the fewer nuclear weapons there are the better, and the fewer countries (let alone non-state actors) that hold them the better. So all other things being equal, it would of course be better for Japan not to have nuclear weapons. 

But in a world with nuclear weapons, a key aim of strategic policy is to stop them being used. We therefore have to put very high priority on reducing the risks of conflict between nuclear powers, and to reduce the risks of escalation to a nuclear exchange if they do go to war. And this leads to some very tough choices. At times, the imperative for fewer nuclear weapons in fewer hands must be weighed against the imperative to build an international order and a military balance which stabilises the international order and makes the use of these weapons less likely. We might find that the risks of nuclear war in Asia would be lower if Japan had nuclear weapons than if it did not. 

Second, more specifically, I am not sure that a Japanese nuclear capability would automatically ignite a new wave of proliferation. Developing nuclear weapons is a big step for anyone. Who among the non-nuclear states would find their strategic situation so profoundly altered by a Japanese nuclear capability that they would feel impelled to take this step? The most likely, of course, is South Korea. But if, like me, you are a inclined to doubt that North Korea will surrender its weapons, and that an eventual unified Korea is therefore like to be a nuclear power anyway, then this horse may already be out of the stable. Beyond Northeast Asia, I think flow-on proliferation effects are much less likely: would Australia, or Indonesia, be more likely to seek nuclear weapons because Japan had them?

Thirdly, we might ask whether the non-proliferation regime could survive by adapting to accommodate a nuclear-armed Japan. Is this unthinkable? Surely not, when serious thought is being given to accommodating India as a nuclear-armed country.

Two other quick points. First, Crispin suggests that Japan does not need nuclear weapons because it has formidable conventional forces. Japan’s forces – especially air and naval forces — are strong, and I am sure they will get stronger. But they will not provide Japan with a capacity to deter nuclear attack from any of its three nuclear-armed near neighbours. It is worth making the point that the only legitimate purpose for a Japanese nuclear capability would be to provide an independent minimal deterrent of nuclear attack on its own territory. But it seems only nuclear weapons can do that.

Finally, Crispin suggests that the best solution is for China and Japan to learn to get on. Of course that is right, and we should all hope that they do. But how likely is that? And what if they don't? Hoping for the best is not a policy.