Since the end of the Second World War Japan has relied on the US-led liberal order for its prosperity, peace, and security. However, with the threat of North Korean nuclear weapons and China’s claim to a large part of the South China Sea, the hostility towards Japanese national security hasn’t been this virulent since the war years. And now, with the US pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which had been in negotiations for more than nine years, the rules-based order Japan has relied upon for decades is in decline.
This leaves the Japanese vulnerable to economic retaliation from China, which has imposed sanctions on South Korea over its deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. China won’t thwart North Korea’s military ambitions because it maintains historical animosity towards Japan over its actions before and during the Second World War. North Korea’s recent missile launches have underscored the existential threat to Japan. Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program, recently said:
“The North Koreans’ recent behavior was the sort you see from a state that is planning to deploy nuclear weapons to its military units.”
But a bigger threat could loom for Japan as the rhetoric continues to heat up between the US and China. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said this in mid-March: “I urge China to cease its economic retaliation against South Korea over its plan to host a US missile shield, it’s unnecessary, inappropriate and troubling.” This puts Japan in the middle of a geopolitical squabble between its biggest ally and a menacing-superpower-in-the-neighborhood — China.
What should Japan’s security posture be to answer these threats? Interestingly, while the Japanese constitution prohibits the country from being an aggressor or waging war for national gain, it doesn’t rule out preemptive strikes. Why can’t Japan protect itself against North Korean missiles? If China wanted its proxy, North Korea, to halt its missile program and join the world community, that’s exactly what would occur. But Beijing has shown it has no intention of reversing that policy anytime soon.
So, how does Japan enhance its defensive capabilities without further inflaming tensions in East Asia? Currently, Japan has a two-tiered missile system in the Sea of Japan. Its destroyers are equipped with Aegis missile-defense systems — a first-defense interceptor — and Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) that provide another layer of protection. With North Korea’s expanding capabilities, that still isn’t enough to deter Kim Jong Un’s regime. The problem for Japan is the system is somewhat effective, but if multiple missiles were launched at different targets, Japan would be unable to stop them.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament that the North Korean threat had reached, “a new stage.” And former defense minister Itsunori Onodera, chair of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party committee dealing with the North Korean missile threat, told Reuters: “If bombers attacked us or warships bombarded us, we would fire back.”
Tokyo is committing US$1 billion to upgrade the PAC-3 interceptors, and recently conducted a successful joint test with the US on the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA system. This missile-interceptor system works with the Sea of Japan-based Aegis to expand defense capabilities on both land and sea as a deterrence against North Korea.
Japanese policymakers are also considering adding THAAD to their defensive arsenal. THAAD can intercept nuclear missiles at high altitudes, but North Korea would still be able to penetrate this shield, so offensive weaponry is needed.
What Japan should purchase from the US are Tomahawk missiles, F-35A fighters, and Lockheed Martin’s precision-guided Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. These preemptive options will work in conjunction with Japan’s destroyers in the Sea of Japan as a first-strike option. Deterrence theory, moreover, states that Japan should procure offensive long-range strategic bombers and establish an ICBM program, thus completing nuclear-triad arsenal.
The threat to Japan should outweigh the limits on Japanese use of force against a belligerent North Korea and ever-hostile China. A case can be made that self-defense and preemption are constitutional if the strikes come from weaponry based in Japan. A cruise missile could pass that constitutional roadblock.
Deployment of offensive military systems could backfire in Japan’s pacifist society. But the cost of doing nothing outweighs the hope that North Korea will come to its senses or that a US-led surgical strike will stop the hermit regime’s militaristic program. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently said: “Any chance for dialogue (between major powers and North Korea) must be seized, as long as there’s hope.” China already knows the situation is deteriorating, but Beijing still does nothing to rein in North Korea.
As 17th-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes noted: “Without a common power to keep (people) all in awe they are in that condition called warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man.” History has proven that national interests, petty rivalries, and unquestionable bitterness will eventually win over a rules-based, orderly system. Even if North Korea were forced by China to negotiate and change its behavior, the process would be slow, difficult and costly.
North Korea’s self-perceived grievances and China’s hatred of Japan would seem to resist solution without the existence of nuclear deterrence. In this Hobbesian world of geopolitical-international relations, how do the Japanese live in peace while the North Koreans want to obliterate them? Only a madman wants a Hobbesian world — or as actions by the regime of Kim Jong Un demonstrate, Japan would be wise to arm itself with every weapon possible and let the chips fall where they may.