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Japanese Nukes—On the Horizon? 

May 2, 2019
by Graham E. Fuller • Blog • Tags: China, East Asia, Japan, nuclear weapons, US •

Japanese Nukes—On the Horizon?

Graham E. Fuller (bozorgg@aol.com)

Membership in the nuclear club is jealously guarded. The fewer the members the better. And the latest member to work his way in the door invariably calls for the gates now to be locked behind him; no new members after me.

There are good reasons for this. One is the world perceives that the less nukes around, the better; they are less likely to get used and surely that’s good for everybody. But the more realistic reason for keeping the club tiny is that no nuclear state wants to yield up any more power to any other ambitious states in the world than absolutely necessary, to preserve their own monopoly.

And there is a theological issue among strategists about whether states going nuclear makes it more, or less likely that war will break out between them. So far, at least, that seems to be the case, even between the unstable nuclear states of Pakistan and India. But who knows what the future will bring?

How does this all affect the US? By now the decline of the US global empire is evident to nearly all—mainly due to its own huge strategic blunders over two decades, mired in numerous endless wars. But the rise—some might say the historic return—of other states onto the power horizon heavily contributes to a relative US decline as well.  By now no one is going to make America great again— in terms of global dominance.

And then we have the extraordinary rise of China. What does this mean for the US in East Asia, long an area of American strategic dominance? More specifically, what does China’s vaulting rise mean for Japan? In the new East Asia, might Japan itself decide to go nuclear?

From an outsider’s perspective it seems that Japan cannot go on much longer renouncing the development of nuclear weapons. Indeed a nuclear Japan would seem a geopolitical inevitability.

If you were Japan, a powerful East Asian state in your own right, how long would you eschew development of this ultimate defensive weapon?

Of course, as the only nation in the world to have experienced devastating nuclear attack at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in one sense is uniquely revolted at the idea of nuclearization. And up to now the Japanese calculus has been to rely upon strategic defense guarantees from the US against possible external threat. That defense is now clearly directed against China.  And Washington has been more than eager to provide that nuclear umbrella as helping maintain America’s own strategic posture in East Asia.

But is the logic now shifting? With the US in semi-permanent decline in global leadership—a trend clearly preceding Trump but accelerated by Trump—and an American public ever more averse to engaging in new overseas military conflicts—are US “security guarantees” still gold-plated for Japan?

And the reliability of US security guarantees is actually only a small part of the issue. China itself has now clearly emerged as the great power of East Asia. It lives there and will not be dislodged by the US.  And China’s power is expanding across multiple fronts— military yes, but far more in its economic and geopolitical vision. Whatever China’s flaws, shortcomings, and self-serving motives are (and who does not have them?) Beijing’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) project criss-crossing Eurasia is economically and geopolitically audacious. China furthermore has the economic power to undertake such a project. It is thereby literally changing the face of Eurasia.

Meanwhile, as China’s OBOR envisions sweeping new economic linkages across Eurasia by land and sea, it is drawing in nearly all countries of the region and beyond (Italy the latest member) who do not want to be left out. Yet, at the same time, the US is maintaining its tried and true compulsive military approach to any and all threats and challenges. Now of course there are sensible and prudent grounds for sober concern over the implications of rising Chinese power, but anti-Chinese defensive alliances are not a blueprint for a positive future vision of Eurasian geopolitics. Would only US genius in technology, developmental vision and imagination be turned toward positive visionary goals around the world rather than to defense-heavy military and security goals. (China’s OBOR of course does have deep security implications as well, but it  nonetheless represents visionary packaging of global transformation that US-backed anti-Chinese and anti-Russian security schemes do not.

Eurasia is clearly shifting to accommodate itself to the realities—and the promise—of Chinese power. While no one wants to put all their eggs in the Chinese basket and trust in infinite Chinese benevolence, the new Eurasian vision is a hard one to reject because it does contain so many positive and productive features for the region. Eurasia has not known broad and serious economic and cultural linkages perhaps since Chinghis Khan.

Under these circumstances, the immediate question is, how long is Japan likely to go on aligning its future with US security guarantees?  Or will it inevitably come to much closer working relations with China? This question affects more than Japan but rather the nature of the entire US strategy for dealing with other major powers in the world as well.

Indeed, Japan is hardly weak and defenseless in itself. It has the fourth or fifth largest military in the world and the eighth biggest defense budget. Its military forces—especially naval—employ advanced technology. Furthermore, Japan has deeply invested in China, which is its second biggest trade partner; perhaps more importantly Japan could be a guarded but important potential partner with Beijing in advancing the mechanisms of OBOR that serves to develop the entire Eurasian content. Partnership and rivalry are not mutually exclusive.

If you were Japan, watching Eurasia awaken and emerge into a complex new geopolitical structure, would you still prefer to link your future to the US?  And to the US as a model of what?

And would you be willing to remain hostage to an alliance relationship with myopic US foreign policies around the world? Would you be willing to sign on to America’s growing enemies list and potential conflicts in East Asia? It might perhaps make little sense to stand with the distant US in a relationship which is at bottom strategically hostile to China. Far better to add a nuclear capability to your own present military force and powerful economy—just as a guarantee—so that the trigger is under your own and not some foreign power’s control.

I am hardly advocating this perspective. Indeed, probably the fewer the states that possess nukes, the better. But the technology is now nearly a century old. And if one views the issue from the Japanese perspective, its hard not to see why nukes won’t make sense in strengthening Japanese strategic independence.  But, yes, it does involve a shift in Japanese strategic culture—for whom strategic caution and modesty has historically not always been its natural posture.  Indeed, we are talking not just about the historic return of China as a geopolitical power, but also of a strategically cautious Germany now likewise emerging out of the NATO/ EU woodwork. And Japan too is on the course of “returning to history,” but like Germany, hopefully having learned a few things along the way. The ascension of a new Japanese Imperial Era is emblematic here as well.

Neither Washington nor Beijing will welcome Japanese nukes, although the reasoning of the two countries in this respect is quite different.  The US seeks to maintain Japanese strategic dependence upon the US and to maintain the US strategic presence in East Asia. And Beijing of course has no desire to see regional neighbors any stronger than they have to be. Nor would South Korea welcome a nuclear Japan.

So as the US contemplates its own future relations with China and its role in East Asia, a realistic appraisal of where Japan might see its future strategic interests lying is imperative.

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Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his first novel is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan”; his second novel is BEAR—a novel of eco-violence in the Canadian Northwest. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com

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