Are We Encouraging a Japanese Nuclear Weapons Program?

One of the last things we should do is empower those in Japan who want to develop their own nuclear weapons. Yet, we may be doing that because we have not thought through the long term consequences of our actions.

As described in my September 26 post, we have extended our “nuclear umbrella” not only to Japan, but also to a few disputed, uninhabited islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. While official American policy favors Japan, as explained in my September 28 post, China can make a good case for ownership.

This dispute has already resulted in riots and demonstrations, naval force posturing, and China testing Japan’s air defenses by flying into the disputed air space. Emotions run even higher than usual in this territorial dispute because wounds still fester from World War II. China mourns the 10-20 million lives it lost to Japan’s aggression, most of them civilians. And many in Japan, including its new Prime Minister, want to to leave their humiliating defeat behind them and assume a place in the military world consistent with Japan’s economic stature.

In the short term, our nuclear guarantee probably helps counter calls by nationalist elements within Japan to renounce its pacifist constitution and to rearm, including with nuclear weapons. But, in the long run, our actions may have the reverse effect. An early warning sign can be seen in yesterday’s election results, which resulted in an overwhelming win for the hawkish Liberal Democratic Party. According to the Wall Street Journal:

Sunday’s election victory by his resurgent conservative party gives Shinzo Abe a second chance to … advance his life’s mission: freeing Japan from the lingering legacies of World War II. … Mr. Abe has sought to play down the Japanese military’s role in the sex slavery of Asian women and has fought with teachers’ unions over school textbooks [which highlight Japan’s war crimes during World War II.] … The cornerstone of his agenda has been to empower Japan’s armed forces by rewriting the country’s 67-year-old pacifist constitution, which renounces the right to wage war and maintain a full-fledged military.   

Citing the 294 seat majority won by Abe’s party, the UK’s Daily Telegraph goes on to note:

Even more indicative of the rise of the right was the 54 seats that the Japan Restoration Party claimed. Only founded in November, the party is led by unrepentant nationalist Shintaro Ishihara, the former governor of Tokyo, who has said he intends to restore the nation’s dented pride. He has already suggested there is a need for Japan to arm itself with nuclear weapons, expand the military and revise the pacifist constitution. Mr Ishihara triggered the ongoing tensions between Japan and China over Senkaku in April when he announced he would buy them from their private owners and administer them as part of Tokyo. [emphasis added]

While on the surface it might appear that American nuclear guarantees are needed to prevent Japan from developing its own nuclear weapons, a longer term view indicates that the reverse may be true. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Japan spends $59 billion a year on its military, compared to $711 billion for the US and $143 billion for China. Without our security guarantee, the only way Japan could realistically challenge China would be to double or triple its military expenditures – an act that likely would be political suicide for the party in power.

Our backstopping Japan allows its hawks to bait China on the cheap and escape the political fallout from increased taxes or larger budget deficits. Limiting our Japanese security guarantees to more reasonable issues (i.e., excluding the disputed islands) would force Japan to face the economic consequences of its more belligerent national stance.

One danger of such an approach is that Japan might decide to build its own nuclear weapons. Aside from the economic costs of such an approach, in light of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fukushima, it seems highly unlikely that the Japanese public would stand for a Japanese nuclear weapons program. But, if that assumption is wrong and the Japanese public is rash enough to pursue such weapons, wouldn’t we better off letting a nuclear Japan duke it out with a nuclear China, instead of exposing our own homeland to a Chinese attack over a few uninhabited islands?

Neither path is risk free, but our current approach seems to be the more dangerous of the two.

Martin Hellman

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To learn more about the level of nuclear risk, visit my related web site.

About Martin Hellman

I am a professor at Stanford University, best known for my invention of public key cryptography -- the technology that protects the secure part of the Internet, such as electronic banking. But, for almost 30 years, my primary interest has been how fallible human beings can survive possessing nuclear weapons, where even one mistake could be catastrophic. My latest project is a book with the audacious subtitle "Creating True Love at Home & Peace on the Planet." Its soon to open website explains: https://anewmap.com.
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One Response to Are We Encouraging a Japanese Nuclear Weapons Program?

  1. darko714 says:

    Why not simply allow them to re-arm? Japan, once unshackled, will be fully capable of defending itself against any power in the region. As for the nuclear umbrella? It’s working out well for both countries. If, in the future, the Japanese wish to develop their own nuclear weapons, who are we to stop them? The downside is that they may someday become ambitious and hostile, and they have proven to be a much more formidable adversary than Iran, North Korea, or China. This is a very difficult question.

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