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Deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Japan may become reality

Since the expiration of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the U.S. and Russia, unofficial discussions have been underway between Japan and the U.S. about the possible deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Japan. In addition to the scenario in which missiles are deployed under the U.S. military, another option has reportedly emerged inside the Japanese government. Under that scenario, Japan would deploy its own missile system. This would raise the issue of Japan’s possessing the capability of attacking enemy bases, and the Japanese government is nervous about the people’s reaction to such a move as well as the impact it would have on relations with Japan’s neighbors.


Since before President Donald Trump announced the U.S. departure from the INF treaty in October, 2018, the Japanese government has reportedly repeatedly said to the U.S.: “China is rapidly developing intermediate-range missiles. Are you not going to take any action?” China clearly dominates Asia in terms of these missiles, and this was becoming of great concern for Japan, which relies on U.S. offensive capabilities for its security.


The INF treaty was signed in 1987 during the Cold War by then American President Ronald Reagan and then USSR General-Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev. The treaty banned the development, testing, and possession of land-based missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 km. While the two countries were bound by the treaty, China moved forward with its own missile development. As a result, that country now possesses more than 2,000 missiles, 90% of which are said to be intermediate-range.


China sees the so-called first island chain as its line of defense against possible U.S. attacks. The first island chain stretches from Japan’s Nansei Islands, past Taiwan, and up to the Philippines. China aims to prevent the U.S. military from operating freely inside this line as the U.S. would rush to the scene in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. China has deployed anti-ship ballistic missiles (“aircraft-carrier killers”) and ballistic missiles capable of attacking Guam (“Guam killers”) to serve as the muscle behind this strategy. 


Japan is located within the range of China’s intermediate-range missiles. Security experts point out that the U.S. bases in Japan may come under Chinese attack if a conflict were to break out in the Taiwan Strait. How would Japan respond? Until now, more attention has been paid to North Korean projectiles. As a result, “the Chinese missile threat has been left unaddressed,” says a government source. The missile defense system Japan has built so far would not be able to handle a barrage of Chinese missiles.


U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has expressed interest in deploying intermediate-range missiles with conventional warheads in Asia. Since then, launch tests and other preparations have been taking place. Many military experts on both sides see Japan as a strong candidate for the missile base because of its location on the first island chain. A senior official at the Ministry of Defense said, “If the U.S. were to deploy missiles. I cannot think of anywhere else for it other than in Japan.”


Some in the Japanese government express support for this. “Having the capability to bring down Chinese missiles would be in itself a deterrent,” a senior official from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs says. “It is important that China recognize that attacking Japan would be futile.” The biggest issue in establishing a missile base in Japan lies in the fact that having an intermediate-range missile base, even if it were to belong to the U.S. military, would mean becoming involved in attacks on enemy bases.


In government simulations, the main island of Kyushu and the Nansei Islands have been identified as possible locations for the missile base. Domestic opinion would likely be against the deployment because the area hosting the base would face an increased danger of becoming a target of Chinese attacks. Meanwhile, China has repeatedly requested Japan through multiple channels not to allow the deployment of missiles. A senior defense official warns, “Navigating the domestic politics and negotiating relations with China would be challenging.”


However, the idea of Japan’s establishing its own intermediate-range missile capability has gained some support in national security circles. With regard to the government position of “relying on U.S. attack capabilities,” former Chief of Staff, Joint Staff Katsutoshi Kawano, who retired in April last year, said during a speech in Kyoto in December: “Japan’s interpretation of ‘exclusive defense’ is far too narrow. We should rethink our stance of not having attack capabilities.” His suggestion is a major change from Japan’s traditional defense policy and would likely face a high political hurdle.


Behind Japan’s interest in acquiring its own intermediate-range missiles lies an uneasiness about its conventional stance of relying on U.S. attack capabilities. This has ballooned under the Trump administration, which operates under the principle of “America First”. The Japanese defense official noted: “The U.S. was the leading power during the Cold War, but it no longer has that status. Sometimes we wonder whether, even if it were to deploy intermediate-range missiles, it would fight for Japan if a conflict arose.” (Abridged)

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