This week Japan found out just how vulnerable it was when a ballistic missile fired by North Korea broke up in airspace close to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island. According to experts in Japan who spoke to me on background, Japan had no capable air defense assets in the north, leaving a significant part of its territory completely unprotected. In essence, the Japanese government has failed in its primary mission to protect its territory and people.
There are many questions but the lack of proper missile defense is one that can be answered today. The others – why for example Kim Jong-un decided to shoot a missile intended to fly over Japan and why the United States stood by and did nothing – are questions that are not so simple to answer.
Japan lacks adequate missile defense for three reasons. The first is that Japan has spent very little on defense, “preferring” to rely on the United States for its security. This is part of the legacy of the aftermath of World War II, but it is also a convenient excuse not to spend significant resources on defense systems, unless of course they can create jobs in Japan.
The second reason is that Japan believes it can find ways to bargain with North Korea and avoid confrontations. This attitude is quite similar to the new South Korean government’s approach to North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. While South Korea contemplates (sometime in the misty future) reunification, South Korea’s planners also understand that a more compliant government in North Korea could lead to other security arrangements, favorable to North and South Korea. This might even include nuclear weapons and missile sharing in future.
The third reason is that current-day missile defense solutions available to Japan are far from foolproof. While the latest debacle near Hokkaido is an acute embarrassment to Japan’s leaders, at least Japan can claim that if it had missile defense it could have tried to shoot down the North Korean missile. I would not look for any strong effort by Japan to fix the missile defense problem.
For example, Japan could buy more Patriot missiles which (possibly) could provide some air defense coverage. It could step up its deployment of SM-3 naval missiles that could also intercept ballistic missiles. It could purchase THAAD systems that would give it a higher altitude shoot-down capability (perhaps offering to stop overflights of Japanese airspace and territory), or it could purchase the Israeli Arrow system that is already proven effective against threatening missiles. The likelihood is Japan will act as if it wanted to take one or more of these steps, but in the end, hesitate and delay as long as home politics allow. Having no excuse is, perhaps, the best solution for Japan’s government.
In the bigger picture, Japan is at a strategic crossroads. It isn’t so much North Korea as it is a resurgent and wide awake China that worries Japan. One consequence, something perfectly in view in the shadow of Hokkaido is that reliance on the US for protection may be a big risk. The US did not step in regarding the Hokkaido threat, and while the US Air Force and Navy have been showing the flag, Japan is rightfully uncertain the US would come to their aid.
For Japan the quandary is what to do now? Should Japan step up its defense procurement and strengthen its missile defenses? Should Japan offer some olive branches to North Korea, and if so what would entice Kim Jong-un? Is it cheaper for Japan to buy their way out of a North Korean problem than to spend tens of billions on missile defense that, to a degree, makes them more rather than less of a target? How can Japan “manage” the US if it takes steps to favor North Korea or even North Korea and China?
These are difficult questions and it isn’t certain Japan will make any concrete decisions soon. But it is clear that US influence has taken a hard hit, just as the missile that broke apart near Hokkaido also damaged Japan’s security posture.