Saturday, August 06, 2005

Will Japan Go Nuclear? Never

Sixty years ago today the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later a second one devastated Nagasaki. It is customary this time of year to pause and remember the hundreds of thousands of people killed and maimed in the attacks. This year, being the 60th anniversary, is especially poignant.

So it is ironic that the anniversary comes at a time when there is increasing talk about Japan acquiring nuclear weapons of its own. This talk is fueled by a number of factors, including the rise of China, the prospect that Tokyo may alter its peace constitution later this year or next, and, of course, North Korea.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Thomas Schieffer raised the possibility of an independently nuclear-armed Japan in an interview in Tokyo last June. “If you had a nuclear North Korea, it seems to me that that increases the pressure on both South Korea and Japan going nuclear themselves,” he said.

He was only repeating what other American leaders have been saying. On the television interview program Meet the Press, Vice President Dick Cheney said, “the idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea with ballistic missiles to deliver them will, I think, probably set off an [nuclear] arms race in that part of the world.”

This talk partly reflects the anxiety that was high earlier this year but is now fading that North Korea would test an atomic bomb. It also reflected the frustration many in the administration felt over inability to push China to push North Korea to disarm. One way was to scare Beijing with the prospect of a nuclear Japan.

The Republican Party Policy Committee paper anticipating a North Korean test put it this way: “Essentially, the United States must demand that the PRC [China] make a choice: either help out or face the possibility of other nuclear neighbors.” The implication was that Washington would tolerate or even encourage a Japan armed with nuclear weapons.

Well maybe, but I’m here to say that if they are counting on China quaking over the prospect of a nuclear Japan, they are going to be disillusioned. China’s leaders are not going to fall for that bluff. They know that in the final analysis Japan will never acquire nuclear armaments because to do so makes Japan less secure.

Japan is famous for its nuclear allergy, as the only country ever attacked with nuclear weapons. It is also famous for its “three no’s policy: not to make, posses or allow nuclear weapons on its soil. These remain a strong brake on Japan going nuclear. But there is a more compelling reason why it’s against Japan’s interest.

Japan will never go nuclear is because it can never maintain a credible nuclear deterrent against China. There can never be, as there was during the Cold War, a strategy of mutual assured destruction. The only assured destruction in any nuclear exchange with China would be that of Japan.

It would only take about five thermonuclear bombs, three on Tokyo and two in the Kansai region, to end Japan. But five nuclear bombs or even a few more, devastating as they may be, would not spell the end for China. Japan, in short, cannot survive a first strike and retaliate. China can.

Gen. Zhu Chenghu caused something of a controversy last month when he said that China could aim nuclear weapons at American cities if U.S. forces intervened in an assault on Taiwan. Not so extensively reported was something else Gen. Zhu said: “We Chinese will prepare ourselves for the destruction of all the cities east of Xian [in central China].”

That was as blunt reminder that China has something that Japan does not have – depth. China has a lot more to lose than it did in Mao Zedong’s time, when the communist leaders deliberately moved factories to the interior to help protect them from nuclear attack. But China can still absorb a lot of punishment – indeed, historically it has absorbed a lot of punishment.

The self-defense staff reached a similar conclusion in a study it commissioned back in 1981 on the feasibility of Japan acquiring nuclear arms. The report was then aimed at the threat from the Soviet Union and concluded that in a nuclear exchange Japan would suffer about 25 million fatalities compared with about a million in Russia’s Far East.

Deterrence worked in the long nuclear face off between the U.S. and the old Soviet Union because both countries are continental powers. It was possible to imagine one or the other absorbing a first strike and surviving to retaliate. Such is not the case with Japan (or Taiwan and South Korea, for that matter).

Japan is much better off continuing to rely on and to strengthen its alliance with the United States and depending on its nuclear weapons for protection. Among other things, the U.S. provides the strategic depth that Japan simply does not have.

Of course, people in Japan and elsewhere will continue to talk about Japan going nuclear. People talk about everything. Conservative lawmaker Ichiro Ozawa once commented: “We have plenty of plutonium in our nuclear power plants, so it is possible for us to produce 3,000 to 4,000 nuclear warheads, making Japan an unbeatable power.”

Japan’s conservatives can bluster all they want. In the final analysis they would still come to the same conclusion. By cooling adding up the advantages and disadvantages of an independent nuclear arms program, they will inevitably decide that these weapons are a loser for Japan. She is far better off under the American nuclear umbrella.

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28 Comments:

Blogger wilkins said...

Todd, your arguments that Japan will not go nuclear and that it is in Japan's best interest to remain under the American nuclear umbrella, are both correct, I believe. But the size of Japan's territory is not among the reasons Japan would decide not to acquire nuclear weapons. Blogger doesn't seem to offer much in the way of space for comments, so I put up more here. Cheers.

August 10, 2005 at 7:28 PM  
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August 10, 2005 at 7:28 PM  
Blogger G Travan said...

It is true that China could destroy Japan with a few strikes, but Japan could respond with massive nuclear strikes, from nuclear submarines and dispersed silos. Further, the mere presence of a Japanese nuclear strike force would force the Chinese to rein in their military posture.

Japan currently has massive amounts of plutonium, advanced missile technology and plans to expand its nuclear plants. Japan could quite easily develop a nuclear arsenal to match that of the US and Russia, and massively overwhelm China's.

By your logic, why did the UK and France develop nuclear arsenals, when they could never have assured the destruction of the Soviet Union? It was to ensure that the Soviet Union could never contemplate an unrequited nuclear strike.

The nuclear genie is out of the bottle. The US and Soviet Union cynically failed to abide by the NPT's requirements of working to eliminate their own arsenals. It is ridiculous to contemplate that advanced countries will tolerate being in danger of annihilation by nuclear attack. Every country with moderately advanced technology will move towards acquiring nuclear capability, perhaps just short of developing warheads mounted on missiles, but with that ability within easy reach.

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