Senior Researcher, East Asian Community Institute
April 15, 2021
The current situation of 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. In order to improve the unfavorable circumstances, the United States has been planning to deploy ground-launched long-range missiles along the so-called “First Island Chain” after withdrawing from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in August 2019.[i] The problem for the US strategy is, however, that they have no territory to deploy these missiles in the Western Pacific. While most US allies and partners hesitate to receive the US missiles worrying about the deterioration of relations with China, Japan’s attitude attracts attention. As far as I know, the Government of Japan has not made negative statement about receiving land-based US long-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.
In fact, Japan will be put in an extremely difficult position in the near future. If the GOJ officially agrees to the deployment of the ground-launched long-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. Unless Tokyo is willing to give the United States a blank check to start war with China, it may also need to establish a substantial consultation mechanism or even a joint command structure with the US military. On the other hand, if Japan rejects the US request, Washington will not only be disappointed but also be very angry. Japan 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, demand the Japanese government to double its defense spending, and decrease the amount of intelligence about Chinese military shared with the Self Defense Force. The strategic stability surrounding Japan 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 long-range missiles. The advantage for China will only grow with time. Even if Japan agrees to the US request, however, China will no doubt try to match the US movement. 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.
Can Japan Reject the Introduction of Missiles to USFJ?
According to “Exchanged Notes, Regarding the Implementation of Article VI of Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States of America” signed between Japanese Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi and Secretary of State Christian Herter on January 19, 1960 states “major changes in their (the US armed forces’) equipment” shall be the subjects of prior consultation between the two governments.[ii] 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. Therefore, 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 long-range missiles with non-nuclear warheads. If Japanese government has a will to reject the introduction of such missiles, however, it can do so as a part of normal diplomatic consultation. Japan is never a subordinate to the United States.
The Difficulty of Missile Disarmament in East Asia Today
The most idealistic scenario for Japan is to reduce the absolute number of long-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, they called on Moscow to ban the deployment of both US and Soviet nuclear missiles to Europe. Almost 7 years later, the INF treaty was signed between President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
The reality in present East Asia is 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. Washington and Beijing lack such an experience and seem to leave the conflict to be intensified. While there existed a state of parity between the United States and the Soviet Union, the United States maintains substantial lead over China in terms of overall military power. As the United States predominates China in nuclear arsenal, China is not likely to make a meaningful compromise in the field of long-range missiles that cover Taiwan. Recent Taiwanese production and deployment of the extended-range missiles complicates the matter even further.[iii] The parties concerned with the INF treaty were basically the United States and Soviet Union. In order to realize the missile arms control regime, the United States, China, and Russia will have to sit at the negotiating table at the least. 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.
In case of East Asia today, the only way to make inroads to the missile disarmament or arms control regime in East Asia is for Japan to play an active role as catalyzer between the United States and China. For example, the Japanese government will suspend its decision about the deployment of land-based long-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 long-range missiles. If China continues to reject the offer of negotiations, the probability of considerable number of missiles being deployed in Japan that can effectively reach Chinese Navy or inland missile squadrons will increase. Japan needs to observe the attitude of the United States carefully so that it will not implicitly sabotage the negotiation.
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 apply pressure to 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.
Ways of Increasing Leverage
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 develop indigenous missile capability to sufficiently destroy the adversaries landed on the Senkaku islands rather than investing in amphibious warfighting capability to retake the 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 long-range missiles faced with the US deployment of such missiles. 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 merit Japan’s diplomacy as the European powers have ample experience in arms control deals.
If Tokyo tries to work as catalyzer for missile arms control regime between among Washington, Beijing, and Moscow, the success is never guaranteed. And nobody would dare to compare Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Even if it failed, however, Japan would better understand the thinking of the United States, China, and Russia through the interactions. As a result, Japan will be able to make a more prudent judgment about dealing with the US request of deployment of ground-launched long-range missiles. When we dread failing too much, we cannot accomplish anything.
※ This article is written for English translation based on Alternative Viewpoints Vol.18-21. Alternative Viewpoints is a newsletter written in Japanese by the author.
[i] The term “long-range missiles” in this article 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 term.