Separated by a common enemy

Already under consideration before North Korea’s nuclear test last week, the LDP’s push to include plans for an indigenous capability to strike North Korea to preempt an attack on Japan has picked up speed over the past week. On May 26th, Prime Minister Aso Taro reminded reporters that since 1955 preemptive self-defense has been considered legal. The same day a subcommittee of the defense division of the LDP’s Policy Research Council approved a draft of proposals to include in this year’s National Defense Program Guidelines (NDPG) that calls for preemptive strike capabilities, especially sea-launched cruise missiles. On the 28th, the prime minister once again asserted the legality of preemptive strikes, this time in proceedings in the Upper House Budget Committee.

In the midst of this debate, Mainichi called for a less passionate debate that acknowledges the risks associated with this step, including the feasibility of preemptive strikes against North Korea, the consequences for the US-Japan alliance, and the dangers of arms racing and security dilemmas in East Asia. I second Mainichi‘s concerns: there are a number of questions that advocates of preemptive strike capabilities have yet to answer, most notably the question of what independent Japanese strike capabilities add to US capabilities.

It now appears that the US government may be contributing to the debate over Japanese preemptive strike capabilities.

Speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on Saturday, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a message to Japanese and South Korean elites worried about the sturdiness of the US commitment to its East Asian allies:

The Republic of Korea and Japan have since become economic powerhouses with modern, well-trained and equipped armed forces. They are more willing and able to take responsibility for their own defense and assume responsibility for collective security beyond their shores. As a result, we are making adjustments in each country to maintain a posture that is more appropriate to that of a partner, as opposed to a patron. Still, though, a partner fully prepared and able to carry out all – I repeat, all – of our alliance obligations.

This message is ambiguous, welcoming greater allied contributions while reaffirming the US role in defending its allies, especially via extended nuclear deterrence, but Sankei‘s Komori Yoshisa believes that there is more to the story. The Obama administration, he writes in an ecstatic post at his blog (if two exclamation points are any indication), has signed off on preemptive strike capabilities. His evidence is derived from interviews of Gates and Wallace Gregson, assistant secretary of defense for Asian-Pacific affairs by Asahi‘s Washington correspondent Kato Yoichi in which both officials appear to accept Japan’s having the ability to strike at threats outside its borders. Gates’s statement is vague, premised on the notion of “If Japan decides” to acquire more offensive capabilities, i.e. practicing what he has preached about the US being a partner instead of a patron. Gregson, while also reluctant to comment on what is a domestic matter for Japan, was open to a new division of labor between the US and Japan.

I appreciate that the US officials are refraining from overt interference in Japan’s internal political discussions, but I think that the US has reasons to be concerned about this shift. (I also think that Komori is fishing for US support for his position. But a pair of quotes in an Asahi article do not a new policy make.)

Apart from the aforementioned reasons for skepticism about Japan’s acquiring autonomous strike capabilities, there is another reason why the US should be concerned about this debate in Japan.

Arguably one reason for the difference in US and Japanese approaches to North Korea — apart from geography, the abductees, and domestic politics — is the US alliance with South Korea. Japan’s North Korea policy can be conceived solely in terms of Japanese national interests, defending Japanese lives and property from the rogue state next door. The US approach to North Korea is broader. Not only is the US concerned about the threat posed to the US by the possibility of the transfer of nuclear materials, but it is worried to a lesser extent about the durability of the global non-proliferation regime. And it is not only concerned about the threat to Japanese security, but South Korean security as well.

The conflicting demands of the US-South Korea and US-Japan alliances are a source of turbulence in the US-Japan alliance. The US, legally committed to the defense of South Korea, has to think carefully about its words and actions vis-à-vis North Korea — indeed, the US is deterred from launching a preventive and perhaps a preemptive war against North Korea due to the threat posed by North Korean conventional capabilities to Seoul. This lends an air of restraint to US pronouncements on North Korea. As Sam Roggeveen writes, it is possible to read Gates’s speech in Singapore as outlining a containment policy in recognition of the considerable obstacles in the way of denuclearization. It also bears recalling the decision by the US government ruling out in advance an attempt to shoot down North Korea’s test rocket. That decision has been interpreted by Japanese elites as evidence of the shakiness of the US defense commitment. Maybe so, but it may be more appropriate to view the US not as lacking commitment to Japan’s defense but having concerns greater than Japan’s defense.

Which is why the US (and South Korea) should be concerned about Japan’s acquiring independent preemptive strike capabilities. Japan, not having any alliance relationship with South Korea, will have no reason to take South Korea’s security into consideration in confronting North Korea. If the Japanese government detects an imminent launch — with the autonomous surveillance capabilities that conservatives also wanted included in the NDPG — it will be able to act solely on the basis of the direct threat posed by North Korea’s missiles to the Japanese homeland. It will not have to consider whether launching a preemptive strike will lead North Korea, fearing a mortal threat to the DPRK regime or perhaps not being able to identify the source of an attack, to lash out against South Korea. Unconstrained by broader regional commitments, Japan could use its new capabilities for “offensive defense” and in the process trigger a broader regional crisis — not out of a lust for conquest, but simply out of a desire to defend itself from an external threat.

This may be an unlikely scenario: after all, it is not clear that the NDPG will include plans for preemptive capabilities, and even if strike capabilities make their way into Japan’s defense plans, they may amount to nothing more than a token force. And Japan may not be able to gather the necessary intelligence for attacks against North Korea’s mobile launchers.

However unlikely, South Korea ought to reach out to Japan in order to close the gap, in effect forcing Japan to think about broader regional security when it considers the threat posed by North Korea. In other words, it is necessary for South Korea (and the US) to undo the damage done when the Japanese government decided to make recovering the abductees the central goal of Japan’s North Korea policy. That decision produced a Japan solipsistic in its approach to North Korea, inclined to view North Korea through its distinct lens, barely considering the perspectives from which other countries have struggled to manage North Korea.

It is encouraging that the US, Japan, and South Korea had their first ever defense ministerial meeting in Singapore Friday. If Japan is to acquire its own strike capabilities, it has to be prepared to wield them responsibly, considering the consequences that saber rattling, to say nothing of preemptive strikes could have for other countries in the region. Regional security and stability is a Japanese national interest, even without formal alliance commitments in East Asia. Realizing that, perhaps Japan’s leaders will become more appreciative of US efforts to uphold regional security — especially the defense of South Korea —and less unnerved by US restraint, in turn lessening the need for independent capabilities.

7 thoughts on “Separated by a common enemy

  1. First off, saying that Japan in 1955 legalized \”preemptive strikes\” of the kind we are talking about in 2009 is only true if you are Aso or part of his clique. The reaction to Israel\’s attack on Iraqi nuclear facilities in \’81 is an example of this ambiguity in international law. Second, this post ignores the view of the Japanese citizens who will choose or choose not to keep Aso as prime minister in the next few months. Domestic interests almost always trump foreign affairs in elections (econ is usually the number 1 issue), but I don\’t think pushing for striking powers/authority will sit well with the people. They can only draw lukewarm support for preemptive measures for ships fighting pirates. Giving the potential to start a war with N. Korea does not seem to be in the cards if you look at this from a broader perspective. I won\’t mention how fearmongering and saying the DPJ is weak on foreign affairs has such a pretty red hue circa the 2004 presidential election.Third, your analysis looks at the problem from a Japanese perspective, U.S.-Japan alliance perspective, and U.S.-ROK alliance perspective but ignores the realities from other Asian perspectives. I don\’t think China or South Korea (not just from a U.S.-ROK perspective) would be receptive to the new capabilities, and ASEAN just wants the whole mess to go away. If Japan really makes moves in the direction of acquiring capabilities, look for a backlash.Last, beyond the aforementioned fearmongering, what are the benefits to Japan to follow through with this from a Japanese perspective? N. Korea does not like Japan, but ROK shares the border with N. Korea, not Japan. Especially with the Lee government in ROK, Japan is not the target of a potential weapon.


  2. Kintama,First, I\’m fully aware of the dubious prospects of the LDP\’s fear mongering. But I\’m also aware that preemptive strike capabilities have support across party lines. Yes, some LDP conservatives may be the most enthusiastic, but this may not necessarily be a partisan issue. Indeed, during an election year the DPJ may be hard pressed to disagree with the LDP on this issue. I think you may understate the extent to which the public might be open to this idea, particularly because it is being sold as a response to North Korea.Second, I\’m not entirely sure what input a new government will have on the NDPG expected in December. By delaying an election and pushing hard for the inclusion of new capabilities in the NDPG over the coming months, the Aso government may make it difficult to reverse should it lose power later this year.Third, thank you for bringing in other Asian perspectives, but that wasn\’t my point. My point was simply that there are reassurance problems in the US-Japan alliance (contributing to Japan\’s consideration of new capabilities) in part because the US has an alliance with South Korea that Japan does not have. I\’m not disagreeing that new Japanese capabilities could very well spark an arms race and introduce security dilemma dynamics, but these were addressed in passing when I cited the Mainichi editorial that raised these points.Finally, how on earth do you stand to reason that \”Japan is not the target of a potential weapon?\” We can debate likelihoods, but the idea that North Korea is incapable of or unwilling to attack Japan strikes me as silly.


  3. \”That decision has been interpreted by Japanese elites as evidence of the shakiness of the US defense commitment. Maybe so, but it may be more appropriate to view the US not as lacking commitment to Japan\’s defense but having concerns greater than Japan\’s defense.\”Excuse me but this difference of point of view justify precisely the capabilities that Japan shouldn\’t have in your opinion.This debate reminds me of the nuclear debate between France and the USA in the sixties. The whole thing revolved around the credibility if the US commitment, in the end the French decided that it wasn\’t credible.Precisely for the reasons given here: the Americans have other interests.From a rational POV, it makes little sense to depend entirely on the US when they know that the US doesn\’t consider the protection of Japan\’s vital interest to be its top priority.


  4. Ozymandias,I would argue that what the difference in perspectives justifies is Japanese doubts. How the Japanese government deals with doubts about the US commitment is a matter for discussion.Every alliance suffers commitment problems to a greater or lesser extent. I\’m not convinced that the regional environment and the bilateral relationship have changed so dramatically as to throw the US commitment radically into doubt.And for the record, I don\’t necessarily think Japan should not have preemptive capabilities. My concern is that the risks from Japan\’s acquiring said capabilities are greater than the benefits for Japan\’s security. This is not a decision that should be taken lightly.


  5. Thanks for the response. I enjoy a good debate.I first need to clarify that I should have used italics when I said \”the target\”, but 4 hours of sleep doesn\’t do the ability to articulate good. There is lots of rhetoric in N. Korean broadcasts about S. Korea and the US, but the last mention of Japan was its obstructing of the 6-party talks with its insistence on settling the abduction question. This leads me to believe a missile directed toward Japan will be targeting the US 7th Fleet and not Tokyo proper; hence the \”the\” and not an \”a\” in article choice.As for the meat of your argument, you say I understate the degree of public acceptance when it comes to N. Korea. Having read Leheny (and others) and his description of how Koizumi was able to group terrorism with the N. Korea threat in building support for more activity, I can see your perspective. However, I think you are underestimating the public\’s tolerance level and the degree of difference between rear echelon support and actually engaging in \”offensive defense.\” When the public has problems engaging pirates actively, essentially starting a war with a preemptive strike (N. Korea won\’t cry uncle) is out of the question. Of course only public opinion polls conducted accurately can solve this difference in opinion. Beyond Koizumi\’s ability to make the connection and put it to action in essentially rear echelon support, I don\’t see any basis for your assessment that there is acceptance amongst the public.As for the importance of other Asian opinions, Leheny points to the acceptance in Asia of the MSDF being dispatched and role of the opinions in the decision to dispatch the MSDF in the Japanese government. It may be my personal opinion, but I don\’t think politicians are going to ignore possible Chinese/Korean backlashes, hence my belief that it deserves more than a mention in passing. Of course it depends on the wording of any agreement made, but I doubt there is much support for taking on such power/authority with more \”offensive\” wording.I should also mention that I agree with you and your assessments a majority of the time, and I agree with the final statement of your second comment.


  6. Anonymous

    There is no question in my mind that leaders of the LDP have ignored the wider picture including consultation with S Korea in formulating their retaliatory responses to N Korean provocation. There is also the implications of whether Japan should or should not be working with the UNSC on the question of retaliatory action. It only weakens Japan's stature internationally and at the UN if they formulate their plans as if it were just a matter between Japan and the N Korean threat to Japan. If Japan wants to become a bigger player on the world stage, they will have to take a wider view of regional security in the future.


  7. The train wreck that is the DPRK Could have been seen from a mile awayAnd Nagato’s response is most pleonecticAlbeit appearing on the surface freneticObama et al stress proliferationWhile Koreans (N&S) bereave separationThe US past act of preemptive bisectionIs one major source of Pyongyang’s dissensionThe War (take your pick) has never been endedThus some reticence to be undefendedFor from nuke arts, if they be weanedAs Pentagon targets they’ll still be well-screenedAnd although branded with the “pygmy” labelWith one blast Kim brought W to tableNow in Beijing, too, they bite their knucklesWhen poor Northern Neighbor shows some yarblesA friendly border — Yes, a true desireBut if WMD’d, much can transpireBecause our string of energized islesSquats upon quite mountainous pilesOf useful “waste” easily transmogrifiableInto a more “robust” dirigibleAnd what of the LDP’s assertion that theyHave every right to blow awayInstillations afar, when detectableEvil-doings otherwise ineluctable? Policy from Nagato may seem freneticBut is in fact quite pleonecticAnd such statements for Seoul are really most recklessBecause Pyongyang is not so feckless“Take us down, if you must,” they say, “do your worst.”“Because we’re hitting the ROK first.”Dai-Nippon won’t watch Dae-Han’s backBecause a security agreement they conveniently lackIt carries the aroma from the soup-con of racism Underlying most of our militant nationalism(In other words, to run with ChauvinOne must be Ken-Kan)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s