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Post-INF deployments of intermediate-range missiles in Japan risk provoking a backlash both within the region and among the Japanese public.
On 2 August 2019, the US withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Officially, the US withdrawal was a response to Russia’s violation of the agreement via the development of the 9M729 missile system (known in the US as the SSC-8). In reality, a more important factor was China.
The INF Treaty upheld a ban on deployments of ground-launched missiles (both nuclear and conventional) of a range between 500 and 5,500 kilometres. The treaty’s only signatories were the US and Soviet Union. As it was not a signatory, China could develop its missile forces without restriction. According to a statement before Congress in April 2017 by Admiral Harry Harris, then commander of US Pacific Command, ‘The PLA Rocket Force (PLARF) controls the largest and most diverse missile force in the world, with an inventory of more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles … Approximately, 95% of the PLARF’s missiles would violate the INF if China was a signatory’.
Given that Washington has now identified Beijing as a strategic competitor, this situation was judged untenable. Above all, the regional ‘missile gap’ in China’s favour is a key component of Beijing’s anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities, which are intended to disrupt the US Navy’s ability to operate within the first island chain, running from the Japanese archipelago, through Taiwan, the northern Philippines, and down to Borneo.
Japan Enters the Debate
Free of the INF, the US is seeking to redress the balance. This was confirmed by US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper just one day after his country’s withdrawal from the treaty. Asked by journalists about a possible deployment of ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles in Asia, Esper replied ‘Yeah, I would like to’, specifying that, ideally, he would like such deployments within months.
No locations have officially been proposed, but Japan is an obvious candidate. The US is believed to be developing a ground-launched ballistic missile of a range between 3,000 and 4,000 kilometres. This could be deployed on the US territory of Guam. However, for ground-launched cruise missiles, which have the advantage of greater precision and cost effectiveness but a range of only around 1,000 kilometres, Japanese islands fringing the East China Sea are much more suitable.
In an interview with the Financial Times published on November 1, Defense Minister Tarō Kōno said there had been no discussions with the US on the deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Japan. However, on 14 April this year, the Mainichi Shimbun reported that such talks are underway behind the scenes.
There are other signs that the Japanese defence establishment may be open to such deployments. One is Tokyo’s muted response to US withdrawal from the INF, despite Japan’s claims to be a leading proponent of nuclear disarmament. What is more, the INF Treaty was always considered a diplomatic victory for Japan, since Yasuhiro Nakasone, the prime minister at the time of the treaty’s conclusion, succeeded in persuading Washington to hold out for a global agreement, and reject Soviet requests for a treaty only covering Europe.
Japanese strategists undoubtedly see the value of new missiles as a means of deterring China. However, there is also hope that such deployments could encourage China to join an expanded INF. Specifically, Gen Nakatani, who was defense minister from 2014 to 2016, has compared the situation to the Euromissile crisis of the 1980s. In the same way that the US deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe persuaded the Soviet Union to accept the INF Treaty, Nakatani hopes that intermediate-range missiles in Japan would also, in the long term, lead to disarmament.
The arguments that Japan should up the stakes in the way NATO did in the early 1980s are superficially appealing, yet Japan must step carefully. First, any move to deploy intermediate-range missiles on Japanese territory, even though conventional and not nuclear, could have an explosive impact on regional relations.
The China–Japan relationship is currently stable and President Xi Jinping had been due to visit Tokyo in spring 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic intervened. A rapid move towards missile deployments in Japan would plunge bilateral relations into a crisis exceeding those of 2010 and 2012, and would have a detrimental economic impact given that China is Japan’s largest trading partner. Furthermore, internationally, missile deployments in Japan would look like an unjustified provocation since it would be the response to a long-term trend in Chinese missile development, and not to any sudden escalation.
Added to this, any hopes of China being pressured to join a revised INF are unrealistic. After any plausible deployment of US intermediate-range missiles in East Asia, China will still retain a significant numerical advantage. Chinese missiles are also located on the mainland, rather than on small islands, making them less vulnerable to attack. Beijing will not be persuaded to give up this advantage. Moreover, it is worth recalling that the self-confident China of 2020 is not the decrepit Soviet Union of 1987, and Xi Jinping is not Mikhail Gorbachev.
Another consideration is that Russia is certain to join China in noisily condemning any US move. Moscow has pledged that it will not be first to deploy non-INF compliant missiles, but it has made clear that it will respond if necessary. Anticipating this, Japan’s National Institute for Defence Studies warned in April 2020 that Moscow could deploy intermediate-range missiles in the Russian Far East with the capacity to hit Japanese territory. Abe’s efforts to resolve the territorial dispute and sign a peace treaty with Russia would also be sunk.
Second, the domestic backlash could be intense. The majority of Japanese support the US alliance, which reached its 60th anniversary in January. However, few will understand the need to welcome a US weapons system that provokes Chinese and Russian threats of retaliation. Many will also see the confrontation as US–China sabre-rattling from which most Japanese would prefer to remain distant.
Opponents of the alliance, both within and outside Japan, will also exploit the situation. The subject of intermediate-range missiles is especially useful in this regard since it is easy to conflate the issues of nuclear and conventional weapons, thereby playing upon the Japanese public’s nuclear allergy. The Euromissile crisis may indeed be an apt comparison, but more for the protests engendered than for any subsequent arms control treaty.
As always, Okinawa will be the main area of contention. This southernmost prefecture already hosts 70% of the US bases in Japan, and its position, especially relative to Taiwan, makes it a likely location for intermediate-range missiles. Yet, this would be to pour fuel on a smouldering fire.
In February 2019, the prefectural government held a referendum to ask residents if they supported construction of a new US Marine Corp base at Henoko Bay on Okinawa’s main island. Over 70% expressed opposition. Despite this, Tokyo has overridden the Okinawan government and proceeded with landfill work. Coming on top of this controversy, plans to deploy what would be seen as offensive weapons will be met with howls of anger, especially after Governor Denny Tamaki was assured during a visit to Washington in October that there are no such plans.
Fortunately, the US’s post-INF weapons systems remain under development and are not yet ready for deployment. This allows time for reflection. Given the risks of provoking a regional crisis and undermining public support for the US–Japan alliance, leaders in Tokyo and Washington would be wise to shelve proposals for the deployment of intermediate-range missiles within Japan.
James D J Brown is associate professor of Political Science at Temple University, Japan Campus.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.