After formally withdrawing from a landmark arms-control treaty earlier this month, the United States now hopes it can better counter its geopolitical rival China by closing what experts characterize as a yawning “missile gap” with Beijing — and it may look to Japan for help.
In opting out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, America could now in theory deploy ground-based conventional intermediate-range missiles to Asia — in a similar way it stationed nuclear missiles across Western Europe to defend against Soviet nukes in the 1980s. This time, however, Washington insists the missiles — if deployed — would not be tipped with nuclear weapons.
U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said he hopes to deploy the missiles to Asia “sooner rather than later,” but has conceded it could take “a few years to actually have some type of initial operational-capable missiles,” since the U.S. currently does not field land-based intermediate-range weapons.
Ahead of doing so, the U.S. could turn to one of its most steadfast allies — Japan — for some form of deployment.
“Instead of a Eurocentric perspective on INF that seeks to prioritize Europe’s strategic stability, we need to view this in a way that also acknowledges the shifting conventional military balance in Asia,” said Eric Sayers, a former special assistant to then-Adm. Harry Harris, former chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Sayers has urged policy planners to consider a new defense agenda for the U.S.-Japan alliance that aims to strengthen ties and compete with China.
“This is the reality of an international system where the U.S. is forced to confront great power competitors in multiple theaters,” he said.
Outwardly, that assessment might seem to be an additional reassurance for Tokyo, which has been increasingly wary of Beijing’s growing military might for the better part of the last two decades.
But things aren’t that simple. The post-INF missile issue is putting Japan in a bind: Either double down on closer security ties with an erratic U.S. administration or risk the possibility of being hemmed in by a China-based regional order.
For Japan — a nation situated between the two great powers of the 21st century — it’s a near-impossible choice.
In recent years, Tokyo and Beijing have been enjoying warmer ties — in large part due to China turning to Japan as it faces a tougher line on security and trade from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Any decision to deploy the U.S. missiles to Japanese soil could also complicate the country’s security debate.
Tokyo is planning to introduce its own longer-range missiles next year at a base in Okinawa Prefecture to counter China’s maritime expansion, but acquiring the potential for offensive attack capabilities could run counter to the nation’s defense-only policy under its pacifist Constitution.
According to a Kyodo News survey last month, the public remains largely divided over Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long-held goal of amending the Constitution, with 56.0 percent against the drive for revision and 32.2 backing it. A similar survey by Jiji Press this month found that 41.3 percent of respondents were opposed to revision while 32.1 percent supported it.
But there are also concerns that any move to introduce American longer-range missiles in Japan could stoke Beijing’s ire and put Tokyo in the crosshairs of thousands of difficult-to-defeat advanced ballistic and cruise missiles.
China has already voiced its opposition to the U.S. sending its missiles to Asia.
“China will not stand idly by and be forced to take countermeasures should the U.S. deploy intermediate-range ground-based missiles to this part of the world,” said Fu Cong, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Arms Control Department.
He also warned other nations, particularly Japan, South Korea and Australia, to “exercise prudence” and not allow the U.S. to deploy the weapons on their territory, delivering a veiled threat that doing so would “not serve the national security interests of these countries.”
Indeed, when South Korea decided to install the THAAD missile-defense system in response to North Korea’s missile developments, Seoul was immediately subjected to China’s wrath, which culminated not only in a freeze on diplomatic relations, but also a nationwide boycott of South Korean goods and services. China claimed the radar used in the THAAD system would also catch Chinese missiles, turning them into a weaker military asset.
The Catch-22 isn’t something that will immediately emerge as a priority for Tokyo. But it is a crucial geopolitical issue that has the potential to alter the security balance and alliance structure in the Asia-Pacific region.
Ditching the INF
In announcing Washington’s exit from the INF, Trump pinned much of the blame on Russian violations of the pact. But a closer look shows that China’s buildup of its missile forces — which pose a grave threat to U.S. military bases in Japan and elsewhere in the region — also played a large part in the decision to abrogate the 1987 arms-control deal.
Trump first said in October that the U.S. would scrap the treaty, which banned all land-based missiles with ranges of 500 km to 5,500 km (310 miles to 3,420 miles) that can carry both nuclear and conventional warheads, but did not ban air- or sea-launched weapons.
The bilateral pact, however, had left China unconstrained to amass a formidable missile arsenal. While Trump and other top officials said Russia was the main reason for bolting the agreement, observers have said this served as a pretext for competing with China.
Indeed, under Trump, the government’s description of China has grown increasingly critical, with its National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy both referring to Beijing as a “revisionist power.”
One key step the U.S. must take to fend off Beijing is to close the missile gap, experts like Sayers have argued.
Such moves are already underway by the Trump administration.
On Aug. 18, it conducted a test of a medium-range ground-launched cruise missile, a type banned under the INF for more than 30 years and one the Pentagon said would inform its “development of future intermediate-range capabilities.”
The key questions are: Where would these missiles go, who would accept them and why is Japan considered a top host candidate?
So far, Australia has quickly appeared to rule out such a role, while South Korea says there are no plans to discuss any deployment of U.S. missiles there.
Another option is the Philippines, though President Rodrigo Duterte, who has at times voiced virulent anti-American views, is unlikely to welcome the weapons.
The U.S. island territory of Guam, home to a sprawling military base, is another choice, but Japan — the United States’ closest Asian ally, especially under Trump — may be the best bet, according to former defense officials and other experts interviewed.
They say the United States should seek to work with Japan to explore near-term options to bolster the so-called conventional military balance with Beijing, imposing new costs on its security planners for any military adventurism.
While Esper and other top officials have been quick to point out that careful discussions with allies would be needed before determining basing, Japan has long been seen by the U.S. military as an optimal site for deployment.
That’s especially so when taking into account its vulnerability to China’s massive stockpile of short- and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, which are capable of laying waste to both U.S. and Self-Defense Force airfields, bases and warships.
According to U.S. military brass and observers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, many of Beijing’s missiles are specifically designed to attack the aircraft carriers and bases that have helped protect American allies such as Japan. These include the DF-16, a short-range missile, the DF-21D “carrier killer,” a medium-range missile, and the DF-26, an intermediate-range missile called the “Guam Express” for its ability to target the island.
Indeed, Beijing appears to have been practicing for pre-emptive missile strikes on the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the western Pacific, using detailed apparent mock-ups in the Gobi Desert of key U.S. facilities in Japan, such as Yokosuka naval base in Kanagawa Prefecture, and Kadena and Misawa air bases in Okinawa and Aomori prefectures, respectively. All of these bases are critical components of America’s power projection in Asia.
China already boasts the largest arsenal of such missiles in the world. It is estimated to have 1,400 to 1,800 of them and is likely building more, the Pentagon and experts say.
Given its military strength, experts say Beijing could feel emboldened to take unilateral actions in the region’s flash points. According to a study released last week by the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, China’s missile arsenal could even spur Beijing in the “near term” to seize the Senkaku Islands and other territories in the Ryukyu chain with quick and limited use of these weapons before America can respond, “sowing doubt about Washington’s security guarantees in the process.”
The Senkakus are a group of tiny uninhabited Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea that are also claimed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyu. The islands, less than 200 km from Taiwan, which also claims them, represent a fragile choke point known as the “first island chain” for a Chinese naval advance into the Pacific. It is also the most effective operational line of containment for Japan and the United States.
One way to deter China from making such moves, U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. Phil Davidson recently told the Senate Armed Services Committee, is to have a land-based missile component with intermediate-range capability that “restores maneuver to the force, making the air, maritime and land component much more viable in any warfare scenario, and presents a much greater challenge for adversaries to threaten.”
While there’s little doubt that Japan is in China’s crosshairs, the debate over whether deploying U.S. missiles makes sense as a counterweight is an entirely different question — and one that is likely to run into a host of domestic problems.
“A potential deployment to Japan … is not so simple and would be a politically sensitive matter for Tokyo and the alliance,” said J. Berkshire Miller, deputy director at the MacDonald Laurier Institute and a senior fellow at the Japan Institute of International Affairs.
“Japan’s ability and political will to take this step would be hard to gauge. Magnifying these obstacles is the fact that the most impactful deployments would be in Okinawa,” he said. “However, any such deployment would be extremely difficult considering already-fraught talks between Tokyo and Naha over the Futenma replacement facility,” he added, referring to the bilateral plan to relocate a U.S. Marine Corps airbase. The base is currently located in the densely populated city of Ginowan and is to be moved to the Henoko coastal area in the northern part of the island. The relocation plan has been running into fierce local opposition.
It’s also unclear whether the U.S. has the political capital or will to spend on a deployment to an ally or partner. Trump has repeatedly slammed the U.S.-Japan alliance as “unfair” and threatened to tear up the allies’ security treaty.
Former Pentagon official Van Jackson said there was likely little appeal among allies to allow U.S. missiles to be deployed to the countries.
A host nation’s territory would become a “fixed target for Chinese missiles,” he said. This, he added, coupled with Trump’s disdain for alliances, has seen him “extorting allies” for greater burden-sharing commitments and consulting little with them as the U.S. “unilaterally pursues pretty dramatic geopolitical changes with North Korea,” among others.
“Why make yourself an even bigger target of Chinese missiles on America’s behalf when America’s such a wild card?” he said.
A way forward?
Still, there may be other options beyond strictly basing the weapons in one country.
“A compromise potentially would be a rotation on these ground-based capabilities in Japan — along with their rotations in other sites in the region, including Australia, Guam and even potentially the Philippines,” said Miller.
Whatever the case, despite talk of a quick deployment, “these decisions aren’t coming next week or next month but will be something the alliance will consider in the coming years,” Sayers said. “So the timelines are longer and less tied to current issues like the upswing in Japan-China relations.”
“The actual decision to deploy intermediate ground-launched missiles would be a joint alliance choice that will be one of many options the alliance will have to reassure the Japanese public or seek to deter Chinese aggression,” he said.
Still Sayers had a warning for those expecting a cure-all.
Any deployment “should not be viewed as a silver bullet to our operational challenges, but a new deterrent option that enhances the alliances’ flexibility,” he said.