The Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launched by North Korea on November 29 appears to have a reach that includes the entire US, including New York and Washington.
Ironically, this also underscores Japan’s worst nightmare. Now that Pyongyang’s ability to hit the US with ICBMs is no longer in question, some analysts point to a growing fear in Tokyo that Washington will hesitate to defend Japan with its nuclear umbrella if the latter is attacked by North Korea. It’s a reincarnation of a top Chinese general’s observation in the mid-1990s that “the United States will not trade Los Angeles for Taipei.”
The threat to nuke LA if the US and China went to war over Taiwan occurred at a time when US resolve to defend Asian allies was less in doubt. But Donald Trump’s election as president has jostled such confidence. Although Trump assured regional allies of US support during his November Asian tour, Tokyo, in particular, is perusing the tea leaves for signs of a wavering US commitment to defend Japan – whether against North Korea or China.
“The Japanese have this fear of abandonment. It’s deep-seated in Japanese strategic thinking,” Daniel C. Sneider, an associate director of research for Stanford University’s Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, told Asia Times.
Such insecurity, according to some analysts, might spur Tokyo to craft a go-it-alone policy of developing its own nuclear weapons that essentially abrogates its current military alliance with the US.
“When North Korea completes its development of nuclear-armed ICBMs that can reach the continental US, the Japanese naturally doubt the effectiveness of the US’ extended nuclear deterrence to Japan”
“When North Korea completes its development of nuclear-armed ICBMs that can reach the continental US, the Japanese naturally doubt the effectiveness of the US’ extended nuclear deterrence to Japan,” Masahiro Matsumura, a professor of international politics and national security at St. Andrew’s University (also known as Momoyama Gakuin Daigaku) in Osaka told Asia Times in an email interview.
Matsumura says the best way to protect Japanese security is for the US to adopt a policy of “nuclear sharing” with Japan, similar to an arrangement it maintains with NATO members. Under this scenario, the US would distribute nukes for use by Japanese forces in the event of war.
Some may argue that the “nuclear umbrella” which the US provides Japan under the existing treaty is adequate to defend it from potential foes like North Korea and China. But Matsumura says that Pyongyang’s successful development of an ICBM has raised doubts about the credibility of the US commitment on the Japanese side.
“Just imagine why the UK and France went nuclear and why other NATO allies chose ‘nuclear sharing,’” Matsumura noted. He sees no difference between the Japanese and European cases.
Is it possible that Japan would abrogate its existing security treaty with the US and go it alone? “The possibility is unlikely,” Matsumura said. “Yet, we have to think unthinkables and must never say never. When Japan thinks it faces serious immediate existential threats that it has to cope with by itself, its choice is obvious.”
Doug Tsuruoka is Editor-at-Large of Asia Times