Japan moving closer to adopting strike capability due to growing threat from North Korea
Amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s aggressive pursuit of missiles carrying nuclear warheads, Japan’s ruling party has stepped up calls to boost the country’s missile defence in what some experts see as a move to gauge reaction from the public and regional powers, including the United States, about the potential adoption of strike capability.
There’s speculation Pyongyang may push ahead with a sixth nuclear test and keep test-launching missiles in an effort to improve its nuclear and missile programmes.
Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has proposed introducing an advanced US missile defence system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence, or THAAD, and other latest military assets in the country, as well as acquiring the ability to strike back at an enemy base, such as with cruise missiles.
LDP lawmakers versed in security affairs say they were highly alarmed by the simultaneous firing March 6 by North Korea of four missiles – three of which landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone – and Pyongyang’s announcement that the action was a drill simulating a strike on US military bases in Japan.
“North Korea’s provocative acts have reached a level which our country can never overlook,” the LDP Research Commission on Security said in a proposal filed to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on March 30.
China immediately criticised the proposal, apparently concerned about Japanese military buildup and the possibility that proposed measures could also be used against Beijing.
“China is opposed to any country’s act of using the [North Korean] missile issue as an excuse to compromise other countries’ security and regional stability,” Ministry of National Defence spokesman Wu Qian said at a press briefing on March 30.
While the US is likely to back the LDP’s call on Abe to “immediately consider” introducing THAAD or Aegis missile defence systems, they appear to be divided over the party’s proposal that the Japanese government “immediately consider” acquiring strike capability.
“The US welcomes and wants Japan to have the ability to defend itself and to be able to contribute more to regional attempts to counter the missile threat posed by North Korea,” said Brad Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a Hawaii-based think tank.
“But THAAD and strike are very different options. One is purely defensive and the other is offensive defence,” Glosserman said.
Strike options “increase the chances of escalation in a crisis and the US is not the one with its finger on the button, meaning we have less control over the situation”, he said.
Admiral Scott Swift, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, said on Thursday he would not be surprised to see discussion on strike capability progressing in Japan, given the rising threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons development, including another ballistic missile launch Wednesday.
The LDP proposal said the envisioned strike capability aims to “further enhance deterrence and response capabilities of the Japan-US alliance” against North Korea’s threat.
Itsunori Onodera, a key member of the commission, also said the proposal does not call for a first-strike capability, but the ability to strike back in the defence of Japan.
“It naturally falls on the scope of self-defence to neutralising the opponent as a way to prevent it from launching a second attack,” Onodera told reporters in Tokyo, insisting the measure would not violate the pacifist Constitution.
Glosserman, however, argued that if it were merely a retaliatory capability, “There is an implicit message that Japan does not trust the US to act on its behalf.”
Upon receiving the proposal on March 30, Abe did not comment directly, only saying he “takes a new level of threat (posed by North Korea) seriously” and that he “would like to coordinate with the party going forward.”
“This kind of discussion is not random,” Glosserman said, noting that Onodera, who previously served as defence minister under Abe, and other like-minded lawmakers would not present such a proposal without prior consent by the prime minister.