Monday 11 Oct 2021 | 21:10 | SYDNEY
Monday 11 Oct 2021 | 21:10 | SYDNEY

US-Japan: Demystifying nukes


Rory Medcalf


21 July 2009 11:33

Sensible stuff: the US and Japan have agreed to in-depth discussions about the US commitment to extended nuclear deterrence in the defence of Japan. 

Why is this such a good idea? How is it consistent with President Obama’s push for nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament? As I argued last month in a lecture at the Lowy Institute titled 'Wicked Weapons: North Asia’s Nuclear Tangle' (listen here or watch here):

The challenge now is to ensure that any progress towards nuclear disarmament does not have dangerously destabilizing effects. Because if handled clumsily, without regard for regional strategic realities, it could do more harm than good…

...The kind of reassurance China will need from America if it is to join the push for nuclear disarmament is fairly much the last thing Japan, or at least the Japanese security establishment and current government, wants to hear. In an extreme cascade of circumstances, a weakened US extended deterrent over Japan – or arguably South Korea – would bring those countries a step closer to what we like to imagine is unthinkable: the development of their own nuclear weapons…

...It is vital for there to be discreet, frank confidential discussions between US and Japan about how extended deterrence can work for Japan under conditions of the US reducing its nuclear arsenal and reliance on it.

That lecture was based on regional consultations I undertook earlier this year, with the support of the Nuclear Security Project.

Conversations with analysts in China, Japan and South Korea illuminated the extent to which strategic nuclear issues in North Asia amount to a 'wicked problem' – fixing one part risks making another part worse. If the US were to try to encourage China into a nuclear disarmament process by easing its own strategic posture in the region – for instance, ending missile defence upgrades or adopting a nuclear No First Use policy – Japan could well be alarmed, and be more inclined to look to its own devices.

It must be strange comfort indeed for Japanese citizens living in range of North Korean missiles – armed with conventional or chemical warheads if not, yet, nuclear ones – to hear Obama talk of eliminating nuclear weapons and reducing reliance upon them for national security, beginning with reductions and possible doctrinal changes to US capabilities.

Of course, this does not mean that Japan can pretend it has no responsibilities on this matter. It has long advocated global nuclear disarmament, and is currently sponsoring, with Australia, an ambitious international commission to chart a way forward. Before long, US allies such as Japan and Australia, benefitting from extended deterrence, will need to clarify what they can live with in terms of more limited nuclear doctrines, as a building block for disarmament.  

The new US-Japan discussions will provide a factual basis for the Japanese security establishment, and wider polity and society, to start reviewing and debating the nature of the US extended deterrent, with a view to clarifying that nuclear deterrence should apply only in truly extreme circumstances. An objective, consensus-building discussion on these issues would be timely, not least because there is now every prospect of a change of government in Japan within months – and the opposition DPJ has a stated policy of endorsing a more restrained version of the US extended deterrent, including a policy of No First Use of nuclear weapons. I’ll have more to say on that angle in a later post.