Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 15:10 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 15:10 | SYDNEY

Why Japan might have to go nuclear


Hugh White

16 July 2008 09:16

I should have known Sam would not let me get away with the rather provocative comment in my post last week about Japan and nuclear weapons without a more detailed explanation. So here it is. The idea I touched on is that the establishment of a stable new order in Asia that accommodates China’s growing power may require Japan to become more strategically independent of the US, and that this may require Japan to develop its own nuclear capability. In other words, I am exploring the idea that we may find that a nuclear-armed Japan is the price we have to pay for a stable new order in Asia.      

To see why this might be so, we have to look at Japan’s situation.  For decades, Japan has accepted its place as America’s strategic client. That has paid big dividends for Japan and for the rest of us, but it has also entailed some costs and risks for Japan. Those risks have been acceptable as long as Japan has been confident that the US would put Japan ahead of any potential adversary if it came to a crunch. But it has meant that Japan has always been anxious that a shift in US priorities could raise the risks that, if forced to choose, the US would not back Japan against an adversary. Hence Japan’s nervousness whenever US-China relations have seemed likely to eclipse US-Japan relations.

China’s rise sharpens these concerns. Japan has good reason to fear that as China’s influence in Asia grows, it will use that influence to marginalise and eventually try to dominate Japan. As long as Japan depends on the US for its security, its only defence against China’s growing power is to rely on, and encourage, the US to contest and contain China’s growing influence. Behind the diplomacy, that is what we have been seeing in recent years. The problem for all of us, including Japan, is that a peaceful future in Asia is going to depend on the US and China getting on well. That will mean, among other things, as China’s power grows the US will have to accord China a greater place in Asia’s power structure – in other words, it will have to treat China as an equal. 

So Japan faces a really tough dilemma. As long as it relies on the US for its security, Japan will understandably feel threatened if the US accords more weight to China. But if the US does not do this, US-China relations will deteriorate, which would likewise be a disaster for Japan, as well as for the rest of us. The only way out seems to be for Japan to cease to rely on the US for its security, and to become itself an equal partner in a concert of great powers in Asia. Only in such a structure can Japan feel comfortable with a closer US-China relationship in which the US concedes strategic space to China’s growing power. And only if that happens can we look forward to a peaceful future in Asia.

The heart of Japan’s strategic dependence on the US is its reliance on US extended deterrence against nuclear threats. And for the Japanese, nuclear threats are not hypothetical: they have three nuclear-armed close neighbours. So for Japan to establish the kind of strategic independence of the US which seems to be required to build a stable order in Asia in coming decades, it needs to ease its dependence on US extended deterrence. Unfortunately there is no easy or incremental way to do that: either Japan is a nuclear power or it is not. Hence we may find that a nuclear-armed Japan is a necessary condition for a stable and sustainable US-China relationship, and hence for a stable Asian region.

Of course an essential element of this argument is a judgement that Japan can be trusted with nuclear weapons. Some will argue that its conduct before 1945 permanently disqualifies it from being able to exercise independent strategic power on that scale. I do not agree. I think that after sixty years of highly responsible behaviour Japan deserves to be trusted again as a normal power. And I would ask, how attractive are the alternatives?

Likewise the argument depends on the judgement that the US cannot resist a significant measure of accommodation to China’s growing power without threatening the peace of Asia. That is itself a key question, but one for another time. Suffice to say here that if China keeps growing, the US would be faced with the challenge of sustaining strategic and political primacy while it has lost economic primacy. That is, at best, a long shot. 

Of course the position I am exploring here remains counter-intuitive. There are very powerful and compelling arguments that a nuclear-armed Japan would be bad for regional stability. I understand and accept many of those arguments. But they need to be set against the depth and danger of the dilemma I have outlined above. Those who dismiss the idea of a Japanese nuclear capability out of hand need to explain either why the dilemma I have identified is illusory, or how it can be resolved in some other way. I would be delighted to hear a persuasive counter-argument.

Perhaps the most important lesson to draw from all this is how fundamentally China’s rise changes the strategic order in Asia. We have lived for the past thirty-five years through the most peaceful and harmonious era in Asia’s long history. But the resulting economic growth has undermined the foundations of that order, and we will risk its collapse of we continue to assume that Asia can stay peaceful for the next thirty-five years on the same basis. The disconcerting proposition I am exploring here provides an indication of how differently we might have to think about Asia’s security in future. If big changes are needed, the sooner we start thinking about them the easier they will be to manage.