August 28, 2001

August 28, 2001 | Commentary on Asia

U.S.-Japan Cooperation and Ballistic Missile Defense

Since 1999, Japanese and American specialists have worked side by side in cooperatively theorizing a viable ballistic missile defense plan. Officially referred to as a 'theater missile defense system' (TMD), the joint study focuses on a shield that would protect Japanese territory from ballistic missile attack. As the need for ballistic missile defense garners more international attention each day, Japan's leaders will soon arrive at the critical decision of whether or not to take positive steps towards deployment

The need for such a defense mechanism is obvious. The neighboring nations of China, North Korea, and Russia place Japan in a dangerous position. Whether because of traditional regional animosities, North Korea's belligerence, or because United States forces are based there to defend Japan under the terms of the U.S.-Japan Treaty, Japan is vulnerable to attack by ballistic missiles. Over the past ten years, for instance, the PRC has engaged in an unprecedented military buildup including entire new classes of mobile ballistic missiles capable of hitting Japan. North Korea provides a case for more direct alarm. North Korea has an active missile development program, and its Scud ballistic missiles are capable of threatening Japan. Pyongyang's routine exhibition of unpredictable and belligerent behavior and its possession of No Dong and Taepo Dong series missiles almost guarantee that some form of retaliatory or defense capability must be developed in Japan. Despite Kim Jong Il's pledge to refrain from the flight testing of new, long-range missiles, North Korea has continued other forms of testing, including tests of motors. Of all regional threats, Japan has perhaps the least to fear from the sophisticated former Soviet arsenal in the hands of a legitimate Russian government. However, political instability and proliferation worries make Russian technologies a cause for concern. Should Russia undergo a political transition to an anti-Western government, or should economic and domestic circumstances create too great of an incentive for arms sales, Japan must be prepared to defend itself against superior Russian weapons in unfriendly hands.

Warning is critical to ballistic missile defense. Given the missile threat Japan faces, why shouldn't self-defense forces have some form of early warning satellite? Geo-stationary missile launch-detection satellites over Japan would detect launches from China, North Korea, and Russia. Such satellites could alert Japan's air defense and ballistic missile defense forces of a hostile launch, and, with data sharing, the information could also be utilized by the United States. Past government to government dialogues have shown that officials on both sides acknowledge the advantages of a mutual missile defense arrangement, and participation in joint scientific research signifies their willingness to collaborate on the establishment of a missile shield. Even more robust intelligence and defense cooperation between Japan and the United States would strengthen the alliance and provide better protection for the citizens of both nations.

What then, are we waiting for? One matter that needs to be resolved in Japan to achieve greater cooperation and continued development of an effective, shared ballistic missile defense system is the current interpretation of Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which prohibits Japan from participating in collective defense. The actual language of the article, which states that "the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes" and that "land, sea and air forces, as well as other war potential" to accomplish such aims "will never be maintained," leaves room for a much broader understanding of the article's intent. Achieving a more balanced alliance partnership will require some re-examination, reinterpretation, or even revision, of Article 9. Japan's voters need to be polled by political leaders on this matter. This was pointed out in the so-called "Armitage-Nye Report" published by the United States National Defense University in October 2000. Americans conscious of the threats to their own nation by ballistic missiles will welcome a change that allows Japan to be a stronger, more active and equal alliance partner.

Through its bilateral security alliance with Japan, the United States has shown an unfaltering commitment to protect Japan, with force, from foreign attack. Through theater missile defense, Japan has an opportunity to likewise extend an umbrella of support to its key ally while retaining a pacifist stance. After all, these are defensive systems under discussion. All governments have a moral obligation to protect their populations from hostile attack. Japan should work toward meeting the practical need and moral obligation of protecting its own citizens and allied defenders from the very real possibility of ballistic missile attack. Also, Japan should continue in cooperative research, and take concrete steps towards deploying a missile defense system that will safeguard its regional interests.

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Kim R. Holmes, Ph.D. Distinguished Fellow
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Asia

Originally Published in the Asahi Shinbun