Japan faces tough choices over U.S. alliance: Robyn Lim

Robyn Lim, a professor of international relations at Nanzan University, Nagoya, and author of “The Geopolitics of East Asia” writes in today’s IHT. Japan and nuclear defence is the subject of the article. I believe Japan’s decision to deploy missile defence in 2007, which they hope to be independent of US missile defence, to be one of the major developments of 2003. It led to little media coverage.

NAGOYA, Japan The decision by Tokyo to send a military contingent to Iraq, albeit in a noncombat role, is a small sign of a large shift in Japan’s thinking about security. Japan has abandoned the delusion that it can ignore its security problems or expect America to resolve them. But tough choices still lie ahead for Japan over missile defense – choices that will determine the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

Japan wants to be treated as an American ally with the same stature as Britain. But few Japanese leaders seem to grasp that the U.S-Japanese bond is still a long way from being a “normal” alliance. Japan’s slow response to the growing North Korean missile threat, for example – Japan will not deploy missile defenses until 2007 – has left unprotected not only Japan’s cities and civilian nuclear power plants, but also U.S. forces and bases in Japan.

Compare Tokyo’s tardiness with the responses of other U.S. friends and allies during the Iraq war. NATO deployed missile defenses to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Jordan at the request of those countries’ governments. Yet the threat they faced from Iraqi missiles was much less than the North Korean threat to Japan.

Moreover, it has taken Japan half a century to draft laws that would allow its Self-Defense Forces to support U.S. forces stationed here in a contingency such as a North Korean missile strike. The fact that this is happening so belatedly shows how much Japan was able to avoid tough issues during the cold war.

One means of ducking U.S. pressure to do more was Japan’s interpretation of its “peace” constitution. Japan says that although it enjoys the right of collective self-defense – as do all members of the United Nations – it chooses not to exercise that right. That approach reflects the cold calculus of self-interest, not just unthinking pacificism.

When it needed to, Japan showed it could bend the ban on collective self-defense. As the Soviet threat grew in the early 1980s, for example, Japanese and American warships and naval aircraft cooperated closely in the Japan Sea. Naturally, they exchanged data in real time. Was that not collective self-defense?

Now the United States, galvanized by the threat of missiles in the hands of rogue states, is building missile defenses. Japan, after having helped develop some of the technology required, has agreed to participate. Missile defense meets Japan’s strategic needs because it is nonnuclear and defensive.

But missile defense involves complex technology and entails complex issues of command, control and intelligence. And herein for Japan lie some bedrock questions of national security and sovereignty that it did not have to face during the cold war.

For example, America deploys satellites to provide warning of missile launchings. Japan, which does not have these capabilities, will be linked to this system. So Japan will be closely tied to the defense of the continental United States. Thus there will be limits on how independent Japan can expect to be.

But negotiations on a memorandum of understanding on the framework for missile defense have been complicated by Japan’s insistence that the wording describe an “independent” Japanese program, as opposed to participation in U.S. programs.

Japan’s concerns are understandable. But if Japan were to deploy missile defenses and eventually develop an “independent” command and control system, it’s not hard to think of alliance-busting scenarios.

For instance, Japan might help track a missile heading for America, but decide not to shoot it down on the grounds that such action would constitute “collective self-defense.” Or Japan might determine that a missile was heading for Japan, but fail to provide sufficient warning to U.S. forces in Japan. (Japan’s radars would be needed to track precisely where a missile is likely to hit.)

If either of these things happened, America would almost certainly sail away from Japan and conduct missile defense from its own territory and the territories of more reliable allies. Japan would then be left to deal with North Korea, China and Russia – which all possess nuclear weapons – as best it could.

Thus the architecture of missile defense will indeed define the future of this alliance. If Japan really wants to become a “normal” ally, the first thing it must do is abandon the fiction that it cannot engage in collective self-defense.