Senior Researcher, East Asian Community Institute
April 15, 2021
The current situation regarding the deployment of land-based missiles with ranges between 500 and 5,500 km in East Asia is completely disadvantageous for the United States. While China has more than 1,250 ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with the above range, the United States has none.[i] In order to improve the unfavorable circumstances, the United States has been planning to deploy ground-launched “intermediate-range” missiles along the so-called “First Island Chain” after it withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August 2019.[ii]
The problem for this US strategy is, however, that they have very few territories to deploy new land-based intermediate-range missiles in the Western Pacific. Concerned by the likely tension with China, most US allies and partners in the region are hesitant to receive such American missiles.
Among them, the Government of Japan has not made negative statement about receiving land-based US intermediate-range missiles. Japanese archipelago, especially the Ryukyu islands including Okinawa, is located adjacent enough to Taiwan, which is the strategic flashpoint between the United States and China. Japan’s decision is crucial to both Washington and Beijing.
Can Japan Reject the Introduction of Missiles to USFJ?
Under the current Japan-US treaty framework, it is not mandatory for Washington to consult with Tokyo and obtain official approval from the GOJ as long as the United States wants to deploy ground-launched intermediate-range missiles with non-nuclear warheads.
Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and Secretary of State Christian Herter signed “Exchanged Notes, Regarding the Implementation of Article VI of Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America” between on January 19, 1960. It states “major changes in their (the US armed forces’) equipment” shall be the subjects of prior consultation between the two governments.[iii] But there is a trick. According to the understanding of the both governments, “major changes in their equipment” has meant “the introduction into Japan of nuclear weapons, including intermediate and long-range missiles as well as the construction of bases for such weapons, and will not, for example, mean the introduction of non-nuclear weapons including short-range missiles without nuclear components.”
Having said that, we have to be reminded that real politics is not always stipulated by legal issues. The Exchanged Notes between Kishi and Herter never precludes the possibility of Japan’s asking the United States prior-consultation regarding the introduction of ground-based intermediate-range missiles even if they are non-nuclear warheaded.
Once such a consultation is publicly requested, the United States will not be able to introduce such missiles into Japanese territory ignoring the GOJ’s refusal. In that sense, Japanese government can reject the introduction of such missiles by the United States if it has a will to do so.
Some in the government may consider that the GOJ does not have to make any decision on the introduction of ground-based intermediate-range missiles by the United States. The logic would go like this: The US military has a long-standing policy of non-disclosure for its deployment of weaponry system and Japanese government has respected it. Therefore, the GOJ has no concern in the detail of the weapons equipped by the USFJ as long as they are not the objects defined by the exchanged notes of 1960.
The trouble for this argument is, however, that the ground-based missiles will be relatively easily monitored by various types of sensors, not to mention the satellites. Not only China and Russia, but also medias and activists will disclose and spread them with undeniable images. The argument for indifference would not be sustainable.
Unless the United States abandon the plan to deploy ground-based intermediate missiles to Japanese territory, the GOJ will have to make a hard choice whether or not to accept them in the near future. Japan will be put in an extremely difficult position.
If the GOJ officially agrees to the deployment of the ground-launched US intermediate-range missiles to the US forces stationed in Japan, China will be furious. Japan should prepare the risk of China’s retaliations ranging from economic coercion, bullying of Japanese citizens in China, reignition of history issue, to military provocation around Japan.
On the other hand, if Japan rejects the US request, Washington will not only be disappointed but also be very angry against Tokyo. The GOJ will have to worry about pressure from its one and only ally. For example, the United States may reduce its commitment to defend the Senkaku islands, forcefully demand Japan to double its defense spending, and decrease the amount of intelligence about Chinese military shared with the Self Defense Force.
Whichever decision Japan may make, its strategic environment will be damaged either way.
If Japan rejects the deployment of US missiles, China (along with North Korea) will continue to monopolize the ground-launched intermediate-range missiles. The advantage for China will only grow with time.
Japan’s acceptance of new US missile deployment will not force China into acquiescence, either. Beijing will no doubt try to match or overwhelm the US initiative by increasing the number of its missiles. Russia is also ready to respond to the US missile deployment in East Asia. The result will be an accelerated arms race in the region.
The Difficulty of Missile Disarmament in East Asia Today
The most idealistic scenario for Japan is to reduce the absolute number of intermediate-range missiles deployed in East Asia. At worst, we would like to set the limits on the missile arms race in the region.
The model is the INF treaty concluded in 1987 between the United States and the Soviet Union. Before reaching the agreement, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) decided the strategy of “Double-Track Decision” in December 1979. Under this strategy, the United States counter-deployed ground-launched Pershing II intermediate-range nuclear missiles and cruise missiles in order to rival the already deployed SS-20 missiles. At the same time, NATO called on Moscow to ban the deployment of both US and Soviet nuclear missiles to Europe. Almost seven years later, the INF treaty was signed between President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
The reality in present East Asia is much tougher than the situation in Europe in the 1970-80s.
Most importantly, China today is not the exhausted Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War. It has enough economic power, technology, and pride to compete with the United States.
Washington and Moscow shared the common interests in arms control and disarmament after experiencing the depth of catastrophe of the Cuban Missile Crisis. On the other hand, Washington and Beijing lack such an experience and seem to leave the conflict to be intensified under the name of “competition.”
While there existed a state of strategic parity between the United States and the Soviet Union, the United States maintains substantial lead over China in terms of nuclear arsenal. Under these circumstances, China is not likely to make a meaningful compromise in the field of intermediate-range missiles that cover Taiwan. Recent Taiwanese production and deployment of the extended-range missiles would further complicate Beijing’s calculus.[iv]
The parties concerned with the INF treaty were basically the United States and Soviet Union. In order to realize the missile arms control regime in East Asia today, the United States, China, and Russia will have to come to the negotiating table at the least. Theoretically speaking, it is not surprising if Japan, Republic of Korea (and North Korea) are called upon as participants in the negotiation.
Taking these factors into account, the probability of reaching an agreement on missile disarmament or arms control between Washington and Beijing is extremely low even if the United States today employs a similar policy to the “Double-Track Decision.”
Japan’s Role as Catalyzer
Helmut Schmidt, Chancellor of West Germany from 1974 to 1982, played an important role as catalyzer for the nuclear disarmament between the United States and the Soviet Union. He adopted “realist” approach with “idealist” goal in mind. Schmidt encouraged, sometimes even pressured, both Washington and Moscow to facilitate the negotiation process of nuclear disarmament.
Given the hard reality of East Asia, the United States and China are likely to accomplish nothing if the negotiations are left entirely in their hands. The Japanese government should adopt the style of diplomacy employed by Mr. Schmidt to incentivize both the United States and China—and, where necessary, to Russia. If the GOJ is determined to mediate between the two or the three, it will help clear away obstacles to achieving disarmament or an arms control system.
For example, the Japanese government would suspend its decision about the deployment of land-based intermediate-range missiles at US military facilities in Japan for a certain period. At the same time, Tokyo should demand Washington and Beijing start negotiation for arms control deal for intermediate-range missiles. If China continues to reject the offer, its Navy and inland missile squadrons will face increased vulnerability by the US missile attack from Japanese territory. Japan also needs to observe the attitude of the United States carefully so that it will not implicitly sabotage the negotiation.
Ways to Increase Leverage
In order to work as a catalyzer between the two rivals, Tokyo should be able to communicate effectively with its counterparts. Because Japan and the United States are allies, Beijing would naturally regard Tokyo as an accomplice of Washington. The GOJ must cultivate credible communication channel with the Chinese.
Japan should possess some kind of sword if it wants to be a good mediator.
In response to the Cabinet Decision on the “Procurement of a New Missile Defense System, etc., and Strengthening Stand-Off Defense Capability” as of December 18, 2020, Ministry of Defense is developing “upgraded Type-12 surface-to-ship guided missiles with the assumption that they will be operated from various platforms” in order to strengthen “stand-off defense capability to deal with ships and others attempting to invade Japan including remote islands from the outside of their threat envelopes.” It is my personal opinion that Japan should, rather than investing in amphibious warfighting capability to retake the islands, develop indigenous missile capability to sufficiently destroy the adversaries should they land on the Senkaku islands. Japan may want to deliberately link its own missile capability with the development of the US-China negotiation.
As Japan’s national power and diplomatic power fall far behind those of the United States and China, Tokyo’s leverage on Washington and Beijing is still limited. Japan should pursue cooperation with the Republic of Korea and the members of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Missile expansion in East Asia is also likely to have adverse effects in Europe as Russia will counter-deploy intermediate-range missiles against the US movement. If Japan and European middle powers such as Germany, France and United Kingdom try to exert influence together on the United States, China, and Russia, the impact is no less significant. It would also merit Japan’s mediating diplomacy as the European powers have ample experience in arms control deals.
If Tokyo tries to work as catalyzer for missile arms control regime among Washington, Beijing, and Moscow, the success is never guaranteed. The mere prospects of a slim chance of accomplishment, however, cannot justify inaction especially when the stake is so high. In fact, Japan’s action will bear fruit in any case. Even if Japan’s diplomatic efforts fail to achieve the arms control regime, Japan would better understand the thinking of the United States, China, and Russia through the interactions. Then, Japanese government will be able to make a more prudent judgment on the US request to deploy ground-launched intermediate-range missiles.
The biggest obstacle for Japan to play this big game toward missile disarmament may be the lack of human capital. Nobody would dare to compare Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. We’ll see what happens.
* This article was written for English translation based on Alternative Viewpoints Vol.18-21. Alternative Viewpoints is a newsletter written in Japanese by the author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
[ii] Unless otherwise indicated, the term “intermediate-range missiles” in this article is not equivalent to those defined under the INF Treaty. It contains short-range (300-1,000 km), medium-range (1,000-3,000 km), and intermediate-range (3,000-5,500 km) missiles in today’s military jargon.