By Antonio Emmanuel R. Miranda*
In his policy speech at the National Diet in November 2017, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denounced the nuclear provocations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) as the most severe risk to Japan’s national security in its postwar history. Within the same year, the DPRK conducted one nuclear bomb test and 23 missile launches, including test launches of intermediate-range ballistic missiles in August and September that flew over Hokkaido. Asserting its ideology of “self-reliance”, the DPRK regime under Kim Jong-un has reiterated its intention of further boosting its nuclear arsenal that can incapacitate Japan and even reach the North American continent. In response, Japan augmented its stance on the DPRK by implementing maximum diplomatic pressure. Prior to his reelection, Abe addressed the UN General Assembly in September 2017 to appeal for international support in disabling Pyongyang’s capacity to develop more nuclear weapons and missiles, emphasizing that dialogue has proven to be ineffective in denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
The escalation of tensions has become a rallying call to enhance defense cooperation among Japan’s allies in the Asia-Pacific region. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera described the rapid development of the DPRK’s nuclear program as “unprecedented, critical, and imminent” at the 2017 ASEAN+3 Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Clark, Philippines. As part of its proactive security policy, Japan is investing in its strategic partnerships with the US and South Korea to enhance the region’s collective ability to deter a nuclear war and maintain peace. In doing so, Japan faces numerous challenges that complicate the formulation of coordinated responses that would establish the foundations of nuclear disarmament in the region.
A “symmetric” Japan-US alliance
As long as the DPRK continues its provocative nuclear policy, the Japan-US alliance will be spurred to become stronger and more relevant. Buoyed by warmer personal relations between Prime Minister Abe and US President Donald Trump after the latter’s first state visit in Tokyo, the two countries’ diplomatic and defensive approaches more closely resonated against the DPRK. For instance, joint military trainings between the Japan Self-Defense Forces (SDF) and the US Pacific Command that project their combined strength can be expected to continue and even intensify.
Japan’s ramped-up capacity-building efforts for its national defense signal its desire to establish a more equitable security relationship with the US. Guided by the principles of “self-help and mutual aid” under the 1952 US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, Japan is seeking to assume more responsibilities needed to develop its own capacities to respond to provocations and resist attacks. With a record defense budget exceeding JPY 5 trillion for 2018, it has approved the acquisition of F-35A joint strike fighters and the land-based Aegis Ashore missile defense system from the US. Compared to the mobile Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the Aegis Ashore is a static and cost-effective system that only requires two location sites to cover Japan’s territory. With Trump’s active support for the acquisition of these equipment, the US welcomes Japan’s defense initiatives as being mutually beneficial to their interests. Nonetheless, a transition towards an enhanced security relationship still requires strategic coordination in light of the key role of the US in Japan’s security architecture. The presence and operations of US bases throughout the country are significant assets that support the strategic interests of the US and the activities of the SDF.
Rapprochement with South Korea
Among the East Asian countries threatened by their geopolitical proximity to the DPRK, South Korea remains an important partner for Japan. Thus, Japan intends to explore avenues to rejuvenate its bilateral relations with South Korea. Considering the similarities in their defense postures toward the DPRK and their respective military ties with the US, the two countries would be naturally inclined to bind themselves in a stronger partnership that strengthens the impact of trilateral cooperation and joint military exercises within the region. During the fifth meeting of the joint chiefs of staff of the US, Japan, and South Korea in October 2017, the three military organizations expressed their consensus in pursuing coordinated efforts to develop readiness for future provocations while reiterating their unified call for the total suspension of the DPRK’s nuclear program for violating international norms. Security cooperation is crucial as the three countries are expected to immediately respond to possible nuclear attacks.
However, the lack of closure on territorial disputes between Japan and South Korea impede greater cooperation. The countries’ conflicting claims to the Liancourt Rocks1 are inextricable from unresolved animosities during the Second World War, and have led to political confrontations between their governments. While enhancing regional security is still a mutual priority, South Korea would oppose aggressive steps towards Japan’s full remilitarization that is reminiscent of its wartime past.
Understanding paradoxes in Japan’s security policy
Departing from its traditional image as a pacifist state, Japan is undergoing a major shift in its security policy as it aspires to a proactive presence in East Asia. Since the DPRK’s nuclear threats necessitate a pragmatic response, the current trajectory of Japan’s security relations indicates its alignment to nuclear deterrence. While it stands firm with its non-nuclear principles that prohibit the use of nuclear weapons within its territory, its heavy dependence on the US nuclear umbrella is central in its security policy. Consistent with this stance, Japan has not signed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons along with other states who possess nuclear weapons.
Some challenges to Japan’s augmented defense posture are deeply rooted in its own traumatic experiences in nuclear warfare. Fierce internal opposition question the agenda of conservative government factions to enhance the security roles of the SDF. Since the inauguration of the first Abe administration in 2006, the Japanese people have become more divided on Abe’s pledge to revise the war-renouncing clause of the 1947 Peace Constitution which prohibits the maintenance of any war potential. Although such amendments are necessary in lifting the legal ambiguities of the SDF, opposition to the proposal grew to 54 percent in January 2018, marking the prevailing stigma of war in the Japanese psyche. Such weak public support could undermine the legitimacy of its proactive security measures. Moreover, the spike of accidents involving US and SDF assets that can potentially harm Japanese citizens could challenge the sustainability of Japan’s expanded military responsibilities. As such, the benefits of capacity-building measures with security partners can be overshadowed by increased risks to the Japanese people.
Japan as an East Asian military power?
Noting the unpredictability of the DPRK’s nuclear program, it may indeed be necessary for Japan to proactively enhance its own defense capabilities to protect itself. In the long term, it is inclined to adopt a two-track policy approach that combines diplomatic pressure and power-projection strategies with the US and South Korea to dissuade the DPRK from further acts of provocation or aggression. At its current pace, Japan’s potential to emerge as a major power in the Asia-Pacific region lies on its prudence in exercising these strategies with restraint, so as to allay fears of excessive rearmament and open conflict. As Japan continues to rely on the effectivity of the US nuclear guarantee, its security policy is not expected to advance further to an offensive stage. Regardless, such strategies should be managed deftly in order to lessen the risks of miscalculation and subsequent harm towards its own citizens.
The Philippines is strategically positioned as Japan’s most sympathetic partner in its complex mission to clear the “nuclear clouds” in the Korean Peninsula. Both countries have to manage their aspirations of a nuclear-free world within the reality of US deterrence. To accomplish this common goal, security relations between Japan and the Philippines can be strengthened through the alignment of their security policies that utilize diverse strategies for regional peace and stability. As labelled by President Rodrigo Duterte in his visit to Tokyo in 2017, a “golden age” of strategic relations with Japan is a valuable opportunity to improve the defense capabilities of the Philippines and fortify solidarity in denuclearization. This would not only magnify the prospects of a peaceful resolution of the crisis, but also mitigate the liabilities of nuclear deterrence.
About the author:
*Antonio Emmanuel R. Miranda is a Foreign Affairs Research Specialist with the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute. Mr. Miranda can be reached at [email protected] The views expressed in this publication are of the authors alone and do not reflect the official position of the Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.
CIRSS Commentaries is a regular short publication of the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies (CIRSS) of the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) focusing on the latest regional and global developments and issues.
1 The Liancourt Rocks are also known as Dok-do in South Korea, and Takeshima in Japan.