On August 8, 2017, the Japanese government released the Defence White Paper, less than two weeks after North Korea test-fired Hwasong-14, its second intercontinental ballistic missile that fell in Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan, thereby increasing Japan’s threat perception.
Various estimates point to the conclusion that Pyongyang is on track to develop a nuclear deterrent, and as it nears the point of possessing a reliable nuclear weapon and delivery system capable of striking the continental United States, Washington will be compelled to seriously consider military action against it. Once security experts concluded that Pyongyang has indeed perfected deliverable nuclear weapons, President Donald trump told the North that any threat to the United States would be met with “fire and fury”. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was quick to respond that he is considering plans for a missile strike on the US Pacific territory of Guam.
Because of the above, the Japan defence review warned of the North Korean threat. It also expressed concern for China’s ‘threatening behaviour’ in the East and China Seas. The Defence White Paper noted that North Korea’s missile development poses a “new level of threat” after the ICBM fired on 28 July on lofted trajectories that landed off Japan’s west coast. The 563-page document observed that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has already considerably advanced and it is possible that North Korea has already achieved the miniaturisation of nuclear weapons and has acquired nuclear warheads”. Since 2016, when North Korea conducted two nuclear tests and more than 20 ballistic missile launches, the security threats have indeed entered a new stage.
Though North Korea targets the continental US, Japan feels the heat too. The growing threat has prompted Japanese municipalities to hold evacuation drills in case of a possible missile attack, and boosted demand for nuclear shelters. As missiles launched on a lofted trajectory were difficult to intercept, Itsunori Onodera who had taken over from Tomomi Inada as the new defence minister (she quit after a slew of politically costly scandals) when Abe reshuffled the Cabinet repeated his earlier demand he had made to Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in March 2017 to consider acquiring the capability to hit enemy bases. Onodera was Japan’s defence minister from 2012 to 2014 and understands the defence needs of the country and therefore seeks an offensive missile capability.
Prime Minister Abe has plans to enhance to Japan’s defence profile, with ultimate goal to revise Article 9 of the constitution which limits Japan’s capacity to project power. If Onodera’s request is accepted, it would be a drastic change in Japan’s defence posture. Respecting the sentiment of the people and constrained by constitutional limitation, Abe government has so far avoided taking the controversial and costly step of acquiring bombers or cruise missiles with the range to strike enemy countries. There is a long way for Japan to do so, however. The White Paper did not mention the possibility of installing more advanced defence systems such as the land-based Aegis destroyers and (surface-to-air) PAC 3 or Terminal High Altitude Area Defence missiles (THAAD), or allowing the country’s Self-Defence Forces to conduct retaliatory attacks as proposed by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP).
It may be mentioned that South Korea’s Park Geun-hye government entered into an agreement with the United States to install the THAAD battery system in response to North Korea’s missile threat.
Though President Moon Jae-in was against THAAD deployment during his election campaign and wanted to review the decision after moving to the Blue House, he has now reversed his decision and requested the United States for four additional THAAD batteries to be installed in view of the increasing threat from Pyongyang.
Both China and Russia oppose the installation of the systems that they suspects could be used to conduct surveillance from outside their borders. Now Tokyo not only feels the deepening threats from North Korean missiles, it also fears China’s continued threatening behaviour in the East and South China Seas. Such Chinese activities prompted Japanese air defence troops to scramble against Chinese military aircraft a record 851 times during fiscal 2016, an increase from 571 times the year before. The first confirmed advancement of China’s aircraft carrier Liaoning to the Pacific also came in December 2016. Japan fears that China’s naval as well as air activities will increase in the Sea of Japan in the coming days and therefore has to be ready to respond appropriately. The relations between Japan and China are plagued by a territorial dispute over a group of tiny, uninhabited East China Sea islets. This is the legacy of Japan’s wartime aggression.
Besides raising concerns over China’s on-going assertiveness in air and maritime activity in the regional seas, Japan is also worried about the lack of transparency in China’s military build-up with its budget tripling over the past decade. Combined with North Korean threat, Abe is poised to beef up Japan’s military and its missile defences. Joint exercises with the US have dramatically increased. Abe has also plans to acquire upgraded ship-to-air interceptors SM-3 Block IIAs and mobile PAC-s MSEs, which would double the coverage area of Japan’s current defences.
Japan’s response is because peace and security in the Asia Pacific region is under threat. In particular, the rise in regional tensions with China and North Korea has raised the level of alert in Japan, as reflected in the Defence White Paper. Unless North Korea changes its nuclear and missile program and China gives up its coercive policies, a new situation could emerge when like-minded nations such as India, Japan, the US and Vietnam shall form an informal alliance to cope with the challenge jointly.