HONG KONGThe news that Japan is thinking about developing pre-emptive strike
capability was an eerie early warning of possible things to come in Northeast
Asia. But like South Korea's nuclear experiments, it should come as little
Foreign critics, headed by China, will
doubtless argue that herein lie the seeds of a new Japanese militarism. Others
will remind the Japanese that Pearl Harbor, though ultimately a failure, was the
model of a pre-emptive strike.
But no amount of foreign criticism -
least of all from China - is likely to halt the gradual shift in Japan's defense
policy posture, and in the attitudes of the Japanese people toward military
The recommendations of a security policy
advisory panel set up by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi not only appear to
mirror the prime minister's own views but are designed to break taboos and
prepare Japanese and foreigners alike for a new era.
This is not just generational change. The
antiwar sentiments of post-1945 Japan were partly a product of revulsion against
the recent past, but equally important was the ability to parade a pacifist
constitution and sentiments while prospering under the U.S. defense umbrella.
The Japanese are being changed by the
circumstances around them. The most obvious is China. Although the report by
Koizumi's panel avoids singling out China, the fact is that China has three
things that Japan does not have - a nuclear arsenal, long-range missiles and
substantial territorial claims (the South China Sea and Taiwan) - that in
principle, at least, are a threat to its neighbors.
In short, it is China that wants to
change the status quo by making up for any reduction in U.S. presence or
influence in the region. Whether the decline of U.S. power in the Western
Pacific comes about voluntarily or not, the Japanese must work with the
assumption that it is going to decline, as earnestly as the Chinese will it to
In addition, Japan must take into account
the uncertain future of the Korean Peninsula. The current North Korean missile
and nuclear threats are probably more rhetorical than real, but in an era of
declining U.S. power in the region, any Korean future is fraught with political
uncertainties - and the certainty that Korean technological know-how will
continue to grow.
Japan knows it lacks strategic arms of
any sort - for pre-emptive strikes or retaliatory ones - at a time when China
has the ability to hit the United States itself. Koizumi's panel warned against
any decision to go nuclear. That is hardly surprising given the consequences for
Japan's relations with the United States, let alone with its neighbors. But
while nuclear weapons without delivery systems are mere symbols, existing
delivery systems - like Japan's - can easily be adapted to carry strategic
There is nothing inevitable about an arms
race in Northeast Asia. The U.S. umbrella may remain for a long time to come.
Japan's naval capability is so far ahead of China's that the gap is unlikely to
close for the foreseeable future. This will deter China from forcibly exercising
its South China Sea claims and may be another obstacle to attacking Taiwan - an
island of immense strategic importance and as close to Japan's Ryukyu islands as
to the Chinese mainland.
But Japan's more visible and
outward-looking defense buildup will happen so long as China continues to place
so much emphasis on military modernization, strategic weapons and historical
claims. At present there is a rough balance between the economic self-interest
that China and Japan have in closer cooperation and their historical rivalries.
But Chinese attitudes, as well as armaments, are fostering a sense of
vulnerability in Japan. Obvious signals of a revenge mentality in China are the
frequent drumming up of anti-Japanese sentiments and opposition to Japan's
permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.
China and Japan may come to the
realization that they can share leadership of an East Asian prosperity sphere.
They may recognize that the interests of a continental power do not have to
clash with those of a maritime nation - in which case they may be able to come
to an informal agreement to let history find its own solutions to territorial
claims and mutually desist from an arms race.
But reaching such mutual recognition
could be difficult if China, for the first time since a late Ming Dynasty
foreign foray, sees itself to be a maritime as well as continental power and the
natural hegemon of the relatively small, trade-oriented nations of Southeast