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



This post is in: Asia, China, Japan, North Korea, USA


  1. scissorpaws says:

    You didn’t explain the one thing that really puzzled me: It was widely reported that Japan “bought” the islands from someone – thus raising Chinese ire. But who did they buy them from? And if they were for sale and therefore salable, couldn’t they sell them back, or attempt to hold an auction to out bit the Chinese? Maybe share ownership as a kind of intermediary trading zone?

    In any event, regarding a nuclear arsenal, I strongly suggest the Japanese save their money. Any nuclear war will be a world war and there won’t be enough of a world left for any survivors to fight over.

  2. Japan’s developing nuclear weapons capability and letting it be known already achieves some deterrence. Foreign relations don’t break down and overheat overnight. The potential heavyweight opponents know that Japan will be nuclearly armed when it needs to be. And they’d prefer this not to happen.

    Japan is not unreasonable to decline nuclear weapons in its present situation. This adds to its moral stature. No nation is admired for possessing nuclear weapons. On August 6 & 9, 1945 the US permanently lost moral stature in the eyes of most of the world. Permanently.

    US, USSR, UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea — I think that’s the sequence — developed nuclear weapons each for special reasons. It’s a silly list, and Japan’s case doesn’t resemble any of theirs. Japan’s 20th century agressions continue to be hated by its neighbors. The best way to slowly tamp down such hatred is to not rearm. In the case of my country, Germany, there’s no danger in not rearming, but there is humiliation, and that is a wise trade for eventual forgiveness. In Japan’s case there’s minimal danger.

  3. Mike Smith says:

    Many Japanese would like the Americans to leave… even if it means having to expand their defensive military.

    Some want this due to their opposition to US foreign policy, they see the Americans leaving equaling more freedom to force their politicians to champion their views.

    Some want this to rid themselves of the economic / environmental footprint the Americans leave surrounding their bases.

    Some its a question of pride… when will the occupation end ?

    and some simply want to stop the gang rapes.

    Nuclear weapons are a very sensitive issue, but can anyone see a situation where China… or even North Korea could use such weapons on Japan. Economically China is invested in their foreign relationships to the point I doubt they would conventionally attack, much less attack with WMD anyone. North Korea is not foolish enough to think they would continue as a country if they used theirs. In both cases the weapons exist as deterrents to powers who have acted with hostility towards them in the past, who also have such weapons.

    • solum temptare possumus says:

      I was hoping you would weigh in, with your experience in South East Asia.
      Good insights! The Chinese are after all pragmatic businessmen.
      ad iudicium

  4. stage1dave says:

    Interesting column…every time I think about two of the most resilient (& successful) economies on the planet (Germany & Japan) I remember that both of them LOST the Second World War.

    Hmmmm…the other thing that crosses my mind is that both of these countries have had direct experience with the disastrous results of homegrown military imperialism; & that just might influence their respective populations’ view of going down that road again.

    It’s also instructive that the US population has had NO direct experience (yet) with these forces, & the potential domestic disasters that may result from their short-sighted militaristic view of the world. Furthermore, I’m not sure the US power structure is all that fond of well-armed “allies”; unless they are willing to take substantial direction from Washington. And buy the majority of their weapons from same…

    Galbraith observed a few decades ago (tongue-in-cheek, & referring to economic advice that was being proffered at that time from Washington) that the Japanese were not without intelligence, & were liable to to choose an independent path that would benefit their country & industry regardless of US “advice”.

    Hopefully, some form of sanity & rational decision-making will emerge from Japan in this instance & situation as well. Sure as hell haven’t seen much of that emanating from DC lately!

  5. It might be that it is not Japan’s will that must be preserved… but, the American presence, for America’s sake! Japan can hardly afford to ‘sabre rattle’ on behalf of their American handlers…

  6. whiterhino says:

    Japan should start to spend billions on defence. This spending would save US tax dollars been spent to protect a country that its own military can protect. Japan should be free to build its own army and navy up to a strength that could protect it self.
    A nuclear weapon should be the first thing it should consider. Japan should gain its pride and military power back, so the smell of defeat can be forgotton. The US will need a very powerful friend it that part of the world.

    • solum temptare possumus says:

      From an historical context of Japan from pre World War 2 into the current era, The Japanese citizenry have been very cognizant of the power and control the Military leadership had in their countries Imperialist period; the results in hindsight disastrous for the economy and the loss of honor to the nation.
      Enshrined in their laws are the reasons for a Defensive Military. The people want nothing to do with an outward expansionist militry doctrine. Too many citizens still alive have lived it.
      For a ruling political party and its Prime Minister to even broach the subject would probably be political suicide. And having nuclear missiles cannot be contained in a Defensive posture; they would be used if necessary for destruction in “other” countries.
      Mr. Margolis is correct when he states that to change nuclear doctrine will be “extremely difficult politically”.
      It may take the passing of the last living senior citizen who lived through Hiroshima or Nagasaki to stop the political onslaught!
      ad iudicium

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.