Sunday, July 19, 2009

No, No and Maybe

For nearly 40 years the “Three Nos” regarding nuclear armaments has been a pillar of Japan’s foreign and defense policy. The Three Nos are, simply put, that Japan will never (1) possess, (2) manufacture nor (3) allow nuclear weapons to be brought into her territory.

The Three Nos were enunciated in 1971 by then prime minister Eisaku Sato and enshrined in a Diet (Japan’s parliament) resolution. This and his signing of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty were the reasons why Sato became the first Japanese awarded the Nobel Price for Peace in 1974

Every prime minister has reaffirmed the nonnuclear principles, but they are coming under considerable pressure because of the rise of a nuclear armed North Korea and China’s steadily modernizing armed forces, including building nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines.

Last week Yukio Hatoyama, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan (DJP) indicated that his party might allow U.S. warships carrying nuclear weapons to make port calls in Japan and pass through Japanese territorial waters without consulting Tokyo in advance.

Hatoyama said “Although Japan has maintained the three nonnuclear principles, I acknowledge that Japan has taken realistic response measures [in the past] regarding certain issues.” He was referring to a supposedly secret pact between Washington and Tokyo permitting nuclear weapons-laden ships to enter Japanese ports.

The Japanese press has been flogging this story heavily in recent weeks based on a former ranking foreign ministry administrative vice minister going on the record as stating that such a codicil to the 1960 security pact did exist. The government continues to deny its existence.

Nevertheless, it is was astonishing for the leader of a major political party, a man who looks increasingly likely to be Japan’s next prime minister, to speak so forthrightly about such a sensitive matter. This is so even if he did walk his comments back a little saying that “I did not say so” when asked if he intends to modify the three nonnuclear principles if his party takes over after the election scheduled for August 30.

“We cannot side step a reality we have to face up to. Once we assume power, we will fully discuss the issue with the U.S.” He said. Indeed, the two countries are not waiting for the new government to take over.

Last weekend, Kurt Campbell and Wallace Gregson visited Tokyo. They are respectively the new assistant secretaries for East Asian and Pacific Affairs for the state and defense departments in the Obama administration. They met with leaders of the government and opposition party.

The pair issued predictable denunciations of North Korea’s recent missile and nuclear bomb tests. “We’ve made it very clear that there will have to be consequences for the provocative steps that North Korea has taken,” said Campbell.

But the real purpose of the mission, besides reacquainting two new administration newcomers with Asian portfolios, was to discuss the nuclear umbrella, or as they prefer to call it “extended nuclear deterrence”. Campbell told the Nikkei newspaper in Japan that the two countries should hold regular discussions on America’s use of its nuclear deterrent to protect an Asian ally – a kind of nuclear umbrella forum.

There have been consultations and refinements of the “alliance” in the past, but it is fair to say that extended nuclear deterrence has not been on the agenda for a very long time, probably not since around 1970, when the issue of nuclear weapons on Okinawa was discussed in the context of its reversion to Japanese sovereignty in 1972.

As far as Japan and the United States are concerned, Northeast Asia has been a nuclear-free zone, ever since Okinawa reverted to Japan and came under the Three Nos and President George H.W, Bush ordered the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from South Korea and aboard naval warships.

Meanwhile, the strategic picture in the region has changed radically with the North Korean actions and the steady accumulation of Chinese capabilities. In the meantime, the nuclear umbrella has become something of an abstraction for most Japanese and Koreans, who see no evidence of its existence.

It gives conservative politicians in Japan a reason to play up Chinese/North Korean intentions while playing down U.S. capabilities and commitments while arguing for a more robust Japanese effort in its own self defense, including possibly going nuclear itself and abandoning the three nonnuclear principles.

So far, no prominent Japanese has gone quite that far, but there is plenty of talk about Japan acquiring a “first strike” ability against North Korean missile sites using conventional weapons such as cruise missiles, something not necessarily in U.S. interests and something that would certainly alarm South Korea.

One way to head that off would be to reintroduce some nuclear weapons back in the region either in South Korea or aboard US naval warships, such as Japan-based submarines equipped with nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles. Hatoyama seemed to be signaling to Washington that such a step would be okay with his government.

Such a move would obviously go against the craw of President Barack Obama, who would prefer to be seen as reducing nuclear stockpiles around the world, not re-introducing them were they have long been removed, but it may be necessary to maintain a semblance of deterrence in Northeast Asia.


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