TOKYO ― East Asia is facing a crisis of military conflict it has not seen for many decades. Though North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has taken a step back this week from his initial threat to fire intermediate-range missiles near Guam, that threat exposed the vulnerabilities of countries in the region ― especially Japan ― over which those missiles would fly and which North Korea could easily target directly.
U.S. President Donald Trump and some members of his administration have made clear that the United States would regard the threat to Guam as a threat against America, perhaps even if the area where North Korean ballistic missiles drop is open water. As such, American officials, including U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, have implied they are prepared to intercept missiles launched in Guam’s direction from North Korea ― an act Pyongyang has more or less suggested it would consider an invasion.
Such detailed exchanges about war fighting ― “if you do this, we’ll do that” ― have rattled the region, particularly those of us in Japan. But Japan has options.
Japan needs to think about developing its own capacity to deter attacks on Guam and on its own territory.
The U.S. military stationed in East Asia has the central mission of protecting its Japanese and South Korean allies. Part and parcel of that protective shield are three pillars of its nuclear forces ― the intercontinental ballistics missiles, or ICBMs, based in the U.S., the submarine-launched ballistic missiles roaming the seas, or SLBMs, and the strategic bomber force. The Andersen Air Force Base in Guam is home to B-1, B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers that form that airborne wing of the American protective umbrella for its Asian allies. For the North Koreans, the aim of shooting a ballistic missile targeting the Andersen Air Force Base is to demonstrate that they have the capacity to damage or destroy one key pillar of U.S. nuclear forces in Asia.
Because Japan does not have its own nuclear weapons and relies on the U.S. shield to deter attacks from nuclear countries, any attack on Guam must be considered a threat to Japanese security. For that reason, Japan needs to think about developing its own capacity to deter attacks on Guam as well as on its own territory.
What can Japan do? One policy alternative is to develop the capacity to attack enemy bases in North Korea with conventional weapons ― both as a deterrent and preemptively if a threat is imminent. A nuclear option for Japan is out of the question because of the very high costs, politically as well as economically.
Tokyo must engage in a security dialogue with Pyongyang to make it crystal clear that Japan has no intention of joining any ground battle on the Korean Peninsula.
Specifically, Japan should accelerate the introduction of air-to-surface missiles and add the number of air tankers to fuel fighter flights en route. Japan should also consider developing a cruise missile that flies 2,000 kilometers as well as ballistic missiles with a longer range. Japan may further consider possessing aircraft carriers. Finally, it should deploy early warning satellites that are not dependent only on the United States.
In short, Japan should learn from South Korea, which is already developing ballistic missiles and has cruise missiles. Beyond building the proactive defense capabilities I have mentioned, it is also important to rapidly engage in a Japan-North Korea security dialogue in order to make it crystal clear that Japan has no intention of joining any ground battle on the Korean Peninsula. Finally, a lack of communication on the Korean Peninsula between Japan and North Korea, the U.S. and North Korea, and North and South Korea is what has enabled tensions to reach a fever pitch.
These are the lessons of August in East Asia.
This piece was translated from Japanese and edited for clarity.