Since the beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency, there has been a marked increase in the number of calls in the US media for both greater nuclear cooperation with Japan and approval for the emergence of a “nuclear Japan”.
Recent events highlighting the growing threat North Korea poses to the region and the American homeland have only added to this rising chorus. The risks posed by North Korea in particular, and concerns among both American and Japanese hawks about containing China in general, provide the impetus for a nuclear Japan, according to its proponents.
Japan’s long-standing aversion to nuclear weapons has underwritten a conflicted foreign policy. Japan’s wartime experiences firmly entrenched the country’s “Three Nuclear No’s” – no possession, production or introduction of nuclear weapons. While seizing the moral high ground and promoting non-proliferation, Japan has for decades faced the uncomfortable fact that it benefits from the greater US nuclear umbrella in East Asia.
The perennial threats from China and North Korea have always been assessed under the assumption of US nuclear assistance in any worst-case scenario. US documents declassified in late 2015 firmly undermine Japan’s anti-nuclear stance, confirming the decades-old open secret that US nuclear weapons were stored in Okinawa during the Cold War. This in turn corroborated Japanese documents released in 2010 detailing said agreements.
US marching to a new tune?
The idiosyncrasies of the Trump administration add credence to these voices, and the question is emerging whether we are seeing the beginnings of a marked shift in US policy in East Asia.
During last year’s presidential election, Donald Trump repeatedly mentioned the question of a nuclear Japan. In March 2016, he mused about whether it was time for Washington to change its policy regarding Japan acquiring nuclear weapons. He continued by stating: “Would I rather have North Korea have [nuclear weapons] with Japan sitting there having them also? You may very well be better off if that’s the case.”
Similarly, in an April 2016 interview, Trump stated: “So North Korea has nukes. Japan has a problem with that. I mean they have a big problem with that. Maybe they would in truth be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea … including with nukes, yes including with nukes.”
Trump’s comments fit into his wider criticisms – both as a candidate and as president – of America’s “uneven” defense arrangements. By calling on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and regional allies to shoulder a larger portion of their defense costs, Trump has made Japan nervous.
Coupled with America’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the state of disarray hounding the Trump administration, Japan remains wary about Washington’s ultimate direction. Richard McGregor, former Beijing and Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times, writing in The Guardian in August noted that “Japan knows that China [and North Korea] are not going away, whereas one day the US might … if Tokyo continues to feel threatened and loses faith in the US, the next step is going nuclear.”
US overtures toward softening or abandoning its opposition to a nuclear Japan meshes with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s efforts to rewrite his country’s pacifist constitution. With the threat of North Korea acting as a strong catalyst, proponents for increased military spending in Japan can increasingly also point to rhetoric coming from the US to legitimize their aims.
Alongside the aforementioned comments made by Trump on the campaign trail, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson refused to rule out the possibility of Japan developing its own nuclear weapons during an interview on instability in Asia with Fox News in March. In July, the hosts of “Fox & Friends” went one step further, proclaiming that “our obligation is to Japan: We’re going to have to give them nuclear weapons.”
Most interesting are the revelations from Australia, after senior Trump officials reportedly told Foreign Minister Julie Bishop that “other countries in the region, including Japan, would be compelled to seek their own nuclear military capability if North Korea escalates its intermediate-range missile program” during Bishop’s visit to New York in May.
‘Nuclear Japan’ narrative spreads
The fear that North Korean missiles can now strike the US mainland has led some to call for Washington to accept this new state of affairs and adapt, rather than seek to neutralize Pyongyang’s newfound capabilities. Among those calling for such an approach is Jon Wolfsthal, former special assistant to president Barack Obama. Wolfsthal has highlighted Japan’s need to increase spending on conventional deterrence, noting that Washington’s continuing ability to reassure Japan remains paramount (and increasingly difficult).
Republican detractors of the Trump administration such as Charles Krauthammer have also raised the issue of a nuclear Japan since the president’s inauguration. Writing in January, Krauthammer remarked that “Beijing plays along with sanctions and offers occasional expressions of dismay. Nothing more. There’s one way guaranteed to get its attention: Declare that we would no longer oppose Japan acquiring a nuclear deterrent.”
Krauthammer touched on the issue again in July, pointing out that “China will have to decide which do they prefer: a divided Korean Peninsula with a client state in the north, or a nuclear Japan. If we are not prepared to take these steps, nothing will happen and North Korea will become a nuclear state.”
With “deterrence” the hottest buzzword, existing defense strategies appear insufficient. This is the argument of retired Vice-Admiral John Bird, former commander of the US Navy in the Pacific. Bird claims that Japan’s existing missile defense measures, including THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense), do not go far enough.
Bird goes on to state that “many thoughtful people have said we should introduce tactical nukes into the Western Pacific, making signals that Japan no longer considers the US nuclear umbrella adequate and is going [its] own way”.
Bird’s statements sent ripples through international media, with British tabloids sporting snappy titles such as “Give Japan nukes to stop WW3!”
US support could manifest itself in the sharing of submarine, missile and warhead technology with Japan along lines similar to Washington’s cooperation with Britain. Defense writer Kyle Mizokami in 2015 argued that the defensive nature of a sea-based deterrent presented the most likely way in which the United States would agree to help.
Furthermore, former military intelligence officer Andrew Carr has championed the “responsible actor” thesis. The title of his April article in Forbes sums it up: “Why North Korea cannot have nuclear weapons but Japan and South Korea should”. Carr expresses his support for any hypothetical Japanese effort to acquire nuclear weapons, and goes on to argue that Japan “would not experience sanctions or violent threats as do North Korea or Iran. They might get a slap on the diplomatic wrist, and nothing more.”
This rising chorus of voices calling for a nuclear Japan presents an interesting emerging narrative. All these signs appear to support the views of Asia observers like former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan. In May, while presenting the keynote address at Victoria University’s symposium on Donald Trump, China and the Asia-Pacific region, Kausikan predicted that “it’s only a question of when, and not whether, Japan will become a nuclear-weapons state”.
Whether this rhetoric leads to any meaningful change in US or Japanese policy remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the increasing frequency and prominence of this idea provides an interesting – and to many disturbing – counterpoint to mounting international concerns about nuclear proliferation in East Asia.