October 27, 2012
The noisy Tokyo-Beijing fracas over uninhabited specks of rock in the China Sea are making Japan feel increasingly nervous and vulnerable.
Few expect the two nations to stumble into war over the barren Senkaku Islands (Daiou in Chinese) though they are believed to abut important underwater resources. But chances of an accidental clash are rising as ships and aircraft from the two sides – and now Taiwan – buzz about the islets like angry hornets. The US nuclear-powered submarine “Ohio” is prowling menacingly off nearby South Korea.
Add this angry squabble to the long-festering Korea-Japan dispute over Dokdo Island (Takashima). The scene in the north Pacific is anything but pacific.
Japan seized the Senkakus after it routed China in two-year war in 1894. At the time, China’s Navy was believed far stronger than Japan’s. The Dokdo dispute dates from 1905 when Japan annexed Korea at the end of the Russo-Japanese War, one of the 20th century’s most interesting but least known conflicts.
China is facing a crucial, once in a decade Communist Party congress to renew leadership that comes just as nationalism is boiling across China. The left faction of the Communist Party has been whipping up anti-Japanese fervor, abetted by Japanese far rightists who love to goad the prickly Chinese.
Meanwhile, fierce rivalry between the Communist Party’s left and right factions has erupted into the open with the purging of neo-Maoist populist, Bo Xilai, and leaked claims to the US media of a $2.2 billion fortune secretly held by the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao.
As the Sino-Japanese war of words intensifies, Japan is facing a major strategic problem it has long deferred: how to deal with China’s rising military power. In spite of its long recession, Japan is still an economic colossus. But Japan is a military/strategic midget in a very dangerous neighborhood.
China targets Japan with nuclear missiles. North Korea may also do so once it can shrink an atomic warhead to fit into its medium-ranged Rodong-2 missiles.
Three or four nuclear weapons would effectively wipe out Japan. Tokyo has only very limited anti-missile defenses and no way to retaliate against any major attack or to deter one.
The US, which is committed to defend Japan under a 1960 mutual defense treaty, keeps warships with anti-missile missiles on station off Japan, but they would be unable to defend Japan in a full-scale war.
Japan’s military forces are similarly weak and were primarily designed to prevent an amphibious invasion by Soviet forces. They lack offensive power and a clear mission. The mood of defeat still hangs heavy on Japan.
Japan remains a US protectorate 67 years after the end of World War II, hosting US air and naval bases and some 41,000 US military personnel. The 1960 Treaty calls for the US to defend Japan against nuclear and conventional attack, though the status of Senkaku remains murky. But many Japanese doubt the US would risk nuclear war over the Senkaku or Yokahama.
Which leaves Japan the fate of remaining naked before its nuclear enemies. Tokyo can continue to rely on US military guarantees, but it sees American power on a long-term decline as China’s influence steadily grows, and India throws its weight around south Asia.
Japan can build more anti- missile defenses and rely on the US Navy Aegis warships. But a saturation missile attack would leak through Japan’s porous anti-missile shield. Besides, Tokyo is reluctant to spend billions on such technology that lacks public support.
This leaves Japan with only one other choice: acquire an air and submarine-based offensive nuclear arsenal that would deter attack by China, North Korea or, far more remotely, India. Japan is capable of producing a nuclear weapon in three months. I have even seen sketch plans for a Japanese atomic weapon.
In spite of the horror nearly all Japanese feel for nuclear devices after Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the plant explosions at Fukushima, Japan will one day have to confront the nuclear issue. Leaving it vulnerable to possible nuclear attack – or, even more likely, nuclear blackmail – is irresponsible and dangerous.
Acquiring nuclear weapons will be extremely difficult politically and will raise a storm of anti-Japanese invective across Asia, but Tokyo really has no other choice.
copyright Eric S. Margolis 2012