Were Japan’s missile defence plans made for China instead of North Korea?

Warming ties between Pyongyang and the rest of the region are unlikely to stop Tokyo’s hawkish government from deploying Aegis missile systems, since the perceived threat from Beijing may have been the real reason for them

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 3:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 June, 2018, 9:06pm

Encouraged by the pace of peace moves on the Korean Peninsula, local governments and residents of districts in Japan that have been earmarked as potential sites for the Aegis Ashore missile defence system are now asking whether the weapons need to be deployed.

Similarly, Governor Takeshi Onaga, the fierce opponent of the large US military presence in Okinawa, has declared that the reduction in tensions between the two Koreas means it is time to send the troops in his prefecture home.

Onaga used the anniversary on Saturday of the end of fighting on the islands in the closing days of the second world war to step up his conflict with the central government over what many people in the prefecture consider to be an oppressive US military presence.

“Developments towards detente have begun,” the governor said in this year’s annual peace declaration marking the end of fighting in the prefecture. He said continuing to build new facilities at the US Marine Corps’ Camp Schwab in the northeast of the prefecture – including two runways on reclaimed land – “goes against the present trend”.

The governors of two other prefectures – Yamaguchi, in southwest Japan, and Akita, in the far north of the country – expressed similar sentiments to Itsunori Onodera, the defence minister.

Both prefectures host training areas for Japan’s military, face the Korean Peninsula and have been identified as the most appropriate sites for the deployment of Aegis missile defence systems.

Tsuhumasa Muraoka, the governor of Yamaguchi, asked the minister to provide “a more convincing explanation” of why Aegis is still required, given the recent easing of tensions in the region.

Although Onodera never mentioned China as a potential threat to national security, it is clear that Tokyo’s thinking is that while the threat posed by Pyongyang may have eased, the longer-term challenge from Beijing has not dissipated.

“The threat from North Korea has not changed at all,” Onodera told the governor, according to Kyodo News. “North Korea has deployed several hundred ballistic missiles capable of reaching Japan and it is very likely that it also possesses a number of nuclear warheads.”

Jun Okumura, a political analyst at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, said the governors’ comments reflect the opinions of a certain number of their constituents and are therefore “understandable” – but he added that there is no likelihood of Tokyo stopping its plans to deploy Aegis systems.

“Everyone with an agenda that can be connected to the Korean situation is going to make the very most of this sudden and what many people see as an unprecedented change in the mood there,” he told the South China Morning Post.

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“They will say that this peace looks different because it looks durable and that there is a significantly reduced need for the US troops to be in Okinawa and even for [Self-Defence Force] units to be in other parts of the country,” he said. “But the feeling amongst those who follow international relations closely and, even more importantly, the Japanese government, is that it is far too early to tell if what is happening in Korea is genuine change or whether it is a temporary phenomenon.”

Okumura said if the two sides go back to their previously entrenched positions, then there is still a need for the Japanese government to make sure that it has the most effective defences in place.

“The deployment of Aegis ashore will go ahead as soon as the budget has been confirmed in the Diet and the national government will push ahead with the enlargement of Camp Schwab,” he said.

Perhaps a bigger threat to the completion of the base in Okinawa comes from Washington if US President Donald Trump decides the project is too expensive.