Japan’s security challenge: North Korea and China

September 11, 2017 12:39
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wants his country to have much greater control over decisions that affect its security. Photo: Reuters

North Korea’s accelerated campaign to develop nuclear weapons capable of hitting North America may be riling the United States but it is striking real fear into the hearts of many in Japan, especially after a ballistic missile overflew Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost prefecture.

In an unusual move, local government officials on Aug. 28 urged people living in the vicinity to seek refuge in secure buildings or in underground shelters. The North Korean nuclear crisis quickly impacted the lives of ordinary Japanese, enhancing their sense of vulnerability.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised that the government would take “all possible measures” to ensure the safety of the people.

The Japanese defense ministry immediately requested an additional US$1.6 billion for new missile defense systems.

But China just as quickly ridiculed Japan’s stand. “In recent years,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said, “Japan has never stopped fabricating, exaggerating and playing up all kinds of threats it faces. In the meantime, it has been expanding its national defense budget, upgrading its military arsenal.”

Hua said that Japan’s military budget has been “rising for years and has reached a record high”. She was silent on China’s own military spending, which has been rising at a much faster rate.

Japan’s defense budget in 2017 is US$43.66 billion, a 1.4 percent increase over 2016, similar to the rise in previous years. China has announced military spending in 2017 of US$148.1 billion, a 7 percent increase, coming after bigger increases every year since 2010.

On Sept. 3, North Korea announced it had tested a hydrogen bomb. The US government calls it “an advanced nuclear test”. Whatever it was, it demonstrated North Korea’s ability to move ever closer to its goal of becoming a full-fledged nuclear state.

Japan, meanwhile, feels more exposed than ever. Its security depends on Washington, where the White House is occupied by Donald Trump, who has accused Japan of not paying enough for its security and who seems to think that everything is negotiable, including his allies’ security.

A Republican senator, Lindsey Graham, has quoted Trump as saying that if there is going to be war with North Korea, “it will be over there”, meaning in Asia. “If thousands die, they’re going to die over there,” Graham paraphrased Trump as having said. “They’re not going to die here. When you’re president of the United States, where does your allegiance lie? To the people of the United States.”

Japanese leaders no doubt are aware of this but they have no choice but to court the US. Abe, in fact, has done so assiduously, and successfully, ever since Trump’s election. But, in the long run, Japan understandably wants to have much greater control over decisions that affect its security.

But this is rendered difficult by the American-drafted Japanese constitution, which outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes. However, over the years, the constitution has been interpreted in such a way as to allow certain activities previously thought to be prohibited.

Last year, for example, a new law came into effect that made it possible for the Japanese military to operate overseas for “collective self-defense”, making it possible for Japanese forces to retaliate if, for example, an American vessel is attacked.

Japan still has a “nuclear allergy”, with a large number of people strongly opposed to the acquisition of nuclear weapons and even to the stationing of such weapons on Japanese soil.

In the aftermath of the ballistic missile’s overflight, however, sentiments may be changing. A former defense minister, Shigeru Ishiba, has challenged the country’s nuclear stance, asking, “Is it a viable argument that we will not accept [nuclear weapons] in Japan while saying that the nation will be protected under the US nuclear umbrella?”

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper entered the debate with an editorial that said yes, the anti-nuclear weapons stance should remain. The enhanced threat to Japan, however, no doubt weakens the hand of the pacifists.

While North Korea is commonly cited as an imminent threat, China looms as an even greater long-term threat in the Japanese mind.

This was made clear by the new defense minister, Itsunori Onodera, who assumed office in early August. He has repeatedly drawn attention to “the increasingly severe security environment” that faces Japan.

“The threat from North Korean ballistic missiles has risen to a new level,” he said at a press conference. “In addition, concerning China’s maritime expansion, the country has continued to engage in various intimidating activities in the East and South China Seas as before.”

In other words, Japan needs to be prepared for life in a dangerous neighborhood.

-- Contact us at [email protected]


Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.