Those of us still wedded to pacifism – the kind espoused by the Japanese since World War II – have reason to weep. A new arms race is under way. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced in his state of the nation address last week that Moscow had developed advanced nuclear weapons capable of overcoming any defences.
Russia has an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that carries multiple nuclear warheads capable of flying at 20 times the speed of sound to avoid defences of the US and its allies. Russia’s hypersonic air-launched missile would defeat any operational North Atlantic Treaty organisation (Nato) anti-missile system.
But the Russian announcement followed that of the US last month, where the US set out a new nuclear arms strategy that included the deployment of low-yield atomic weapons and higher Pentagon spending on modernising its nuclear armoury. The race towards mutual destruction is on.
Throw into the mix North Korea’s race against time to achieve ICBM nuclear capability, which would enable it to launch a nuclear weapon at Los Angeles if attacked.
The US intelligence community believes North Korea is just months away from achieving this capability, which would be a game changer in terms of the US security guarantees to a country like Japan.
Let’s imagine that the hawks around US President Donald Trump get the upper hand, and Trump’s national security adviser HR McMaster and the “America First” cabal manages to convince the president to carry out the proposed “bloody nose attack” on North Korea. McMaster has been advocating a limited strike on North Korea in order to demonstrate US resolve. The candidate for US ambassador to South Korea – Professor Victor Cha – was already dropped for the job as a result of his opposition to a bloody nose attack on North Korea.
If McMaster got his way and the US launched a limited attack on North Korea, it is conceivable that North Korea may carry out a retaliatory attack on Japan as a US ally – a country which is wholly reliant on the US security umbrella to counter any such attack. The question then becomes whether the US would honour its security guarantee to defend Japan knowing that it may provoke a North Korean counter attack against the US mainland.
This is assuming North Korea has such long-range capability in the near future.
This puts Japan in a serious predicament. Japan has avoided re-arming ever since the end of World War II, living up to Article 9 of its constitution which is a renunciation of war. Even when the US demanded that Japan rearm in the Cold War years, it had refused as the Japanese public had a strong abhorrence to military power as a tool of statecraft.
The devotion to pacifism emanated from seeing the country burnt to ashes when the military had become out of control.
The US has complained over the years that Japan is not carrying its share of the defence burden, which led to comments by Trump on the campaign trail in 2016 that Japan would be better off with its own atomic weapons. As president, however, Trump quickly reversed this rhetoric, declaring that the US-Japanese alliance was unshakeable.
The reality is that if US forces were ever to leave Japan, the cost in terms of replacing them and building up Japan’s own defence capabilities would likely be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.
Japan has had to contend with North Korea launching two missiles over the Japanese mainland last year, in addition to its seven other missile tests, and an unpredictable White House that has at times talked of destroying North Korea if necessary.
It is no wonder that the Japanese administration opted to reinterpret its constitution and allow the limited exercise of the right of collective self-defence.
Under the new guidelines, Japan’s Self-Defence Forces will be able to conduct appropriate operations involving the use of force in response to an armed attack against one of its allies, when Japan’s own survival is also threatened.
The escalating security threats compelled Japan to take such a decision, but it goes against the grain of popular sentiment. According to opinion polls following the decision, 53% of the Japanese public were against this change in traditional policy. But in a world where big powers are rushing towards nuclear supremacy, and rogue nations threaten to attack, it is difficult to maintain a policy based on pacifism, which had bordered on anti-militarism.
Even Japan’s ruling party now feels the need to increase military spending, and possibly introduce land based missile defence systems and counter attack capabilities. If OR Tambo were alive it would have broken his heart to see Japan in a situation where it has little choice but to re-arm. In 1987, Tambo had visited Hiroshima and said, “history chose this city of Hiroshima to tell the world never to go to war again, and never to abandon the struggle for peace and justice”.
* Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Group Foreign Editor