TCS Daily

The Japan Cards

By Bryan Preston - February 22, 2005 12:00 AM

On February 19, Japan and the US agreed that Taiwan's security is a common interest. The announcement came after a meeting between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Japanese Foreign Minister Nobutaka Machimura and Defense Minster Yoshinoro Ono, and means that Japan agrees in principle to defend Taiwan from mainland Chinese invasion. How such defense would play out in the event of a conflict across the strait was not specified, but could mean anything from allowing the US to stage forces on Japanese soil to a more active role for Japan's Self-Defense Forces. The new Japanese role in Taiwan's security represents the most significant change in the US Asian security strategy since 1996, the last time the US and Japan changed the status of forces and mutual security arrangements.

Beijing reacted to the latest move angrily, calling it "interference" in China's internal affairs. But China could have prevented the announcement by acting more responsibly in the Korean nuclear crisis.

Beginning in 2002, North Korea -- with its patron China -- has been playing a game of nuclear cat and mouse with the United States, Japan, and South Korea. China could have at any point forced Pyongyang either to the negotiating table or even to suspend its nuclear weapons programs by halting fuel and food shipments into North Korea, shipments which account for the lion's share of North Korea's economy and without which it could not long survive. But China has instead allowed North Korea to ratchet up tensions at every step, and has never so much as hinted that North Korea could pay a price for its belligerence.

In spite of the obvious danger South Korea faces from North Korea's nuclear potential, Seoul has preferred to pursue its "sunshine policy" of engagement rather than confrontation with the North. Many South Korean politicians were also involved in the Hyundai bribery scandal in which that corporation essentially paid the North Korean government to hold summits with the South and to open up trade. Thus, South Korea has proven itself to be a less than reliable ally, spending as much time criticizing the American policy as it does that of North Korea.

Japan, on the other hand, has grown increasingly hawkish toward North Korea. In 1998, North Korea launched a No Dong missile over Japan's main island, prompting Tokyo to re-evaluate everything from its participation in the 1994 Agreed Framework -- the last multilateral deal inked to halt North Korea's nuclear programs, but which in actuality merely delayed that program by a year or two -- to Article 9 of its constitution which forbids Japan from becoming a military power again. Since then Pyongyang has admitted that during the 1970s and 1980s it abducted Japanese citizens and forced them to train intelligence agents and saboteurs who would infiltrate Japan should war break out. In 2003 Japan even embraced Bush style military pre-emption, signaling that it would meet North Korean missiles on the pad if it believed those missiles were aimed at Japan or any of its interests.

Japan's hawkishness and its relative political stability under the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's strongest leader since Nakasone, has become a golden opportunity for the Bush administration, which badly needs a point of leverage against China to persuade it to deal decisively with North Korea. For Japan, the United States is not just its largest trading partner and closest ally; the US is also the only real shield between its people and the madman in Pyongyang. So this mutual interest has produced the agreement over Taiwan, the security of which would otherwise mean little to Japan. It is the first Japan card to be played in a very high stakes game of nuclear poker. Other cards may soon follow.

If China's anger does not translate into action against North Korea, expect the "Japan cards" to begin falling one by one. First, Japan will announce that it is accelerating the process of rethinking Article 9, a process begun in wake of 9-11 and originally planned to last several years. If China still fails to act, Japan's next step will probably be a formal abandonment of Article 9, which would mean for all intents and purposes that Japan's military is no longer just a force for self-defense. Tokyo could, and presumably would, project its forces wherever they might be needed. The last thing China wants is a resurgent Japanese military. The balance of power in Asia would shift away from Beijing and toward Tokyo overnight: Japan, with the world's second largest economy and access to American technology, would quickly become the region's dominant military power.

But China may still allow North Korea to run on its long leash. In that case, the next Japan card would probably be an announcement that Japan and the United States will begin to manufacture military hardware on Japanese soil. With that would come a range of benefits to Japan, from the importation of expertise to a renewed capability to construct the military of its choosing, to an even closer relationship with the US. The actual hardware involved would likely be something that could benefit both Japan and Taiwan, again signaling to China that it must act on North Korea or risk losing its "renegade province" for good -- submarines or fighter aircraft fit the bill nicely. Missile defense cooperation might be an additional component of the hardware card.

Should that card fail, the world is a short way from seeing what would have been unthinkable a few years ago: Japan becoming a nuclear power. Because of its sad history with the atomic bomb, Japan has long forbade the US from basing nuclear weapons on its soil and has never pursued building such weapons of its own. But it could build nuclear weapons at any time. At present, experts estimate that Japan is roughly six weeks away from producing a nuclear weapon. All it has to do is decide to do it, and the fact of a North Korean nuclear weapon sitting atop a No Dong missile capable of striking Tokyo combined with Chinese inaction would make that decision an easy one. Japan would go nuclear.

A nuclear Japan would be the ultimate card to play, though the final results are far from predictable. It would change the face of Asia, as one by one states all along China's flanks follow suit. For its failure to rein in North Korea's nuclear program, China could find itself facing a host of nuclear armed states all along its borders, and even its "renegade province" might acquire the bomb.

Bryan Preston is a writer and television producer. He is also the author of Junkyardblog.


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