Special to The Japan Times

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists recently sought to “out” Japan by revealing that the United States stored nuclear weapons on Japan’s offshore islands during the early Cold War. CNN-Time, driven by CNN chief Ted Turner’s mission to rid the world of nuclear weapons, duly publicized this revelation. Abolitionists, of course, hope that if the U.S. dismantles its nuclear arsenal, others will follow. But that is akin to believing in tantric flying. Nuclear weapons cannot be abolished, because their technology is known and will not be unlearned.

Nuclear weapons are also an inescapable part of Japan’s future, as they are of its past. During the Cold War, U.S. nuclear weapons helped preserve Japan’s independence by deterring Soviet ambitions for hegemony over Eurasia. Victory in the Cold War did not end security problems in East Asia, where nuclear weapons remain highly salient. If the U.S. did abolish its nuclear arsenal, would Japan deter the nuclear-armed powers of East Asia by waving its three nonnuclear principles?

While Berlin was always the main locus of superpower tension during the Cold War, the East Asian dimension of this global strategic contest grew progressively more important. Nuclear weapons, maritime power and bases in Japan and elsewhere in East Asia allowed the U.S. to target the Soviet Union’s vulnerable eastern flank, thus presenting Moscow with the credible threat of a two-front war. Like all enduring alliances, the U.S.-Japan alliance is built on a congruence of strategic interests. For Japan, alliance with the dominant maritime power has always represented optimal security. Without U.S. maritime and nuclear protection, postwar Japan would have been rapidly brought to heel by the Sino-Soviet alliance, which was specifically targeted at Japan. The 1952 U.S.-Japan security treaty permitted the U.S. to store nuclear weapons in Japan and to launch them without consultation. At Japan’s behest, the treaty was revised in 1960. After that, the U.S. was supposed to consult Japan about changes in the equipment supplied to its forces in Japan, which meant nuclear weapons.

In 1969, reassured by renewed U.S. pledges of continued nuclear protection after China went nuclear, Japan announced its three nonnuclear principles: that it would not make or possess nuclear weapons or allow them to be introduced into Japan. Nuclear weapons were removed from Okinawa when it was returned to Japan in 1972. But Japan, dependent on an alliance critically reliant on U.S. nuclear weapons and maritime power, continued to turn a blind eye when nuclear-capable U.S. warships entered its ports. In such an alliance, it could not have been otherwise.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, while steadily building up its own nuclear arsenal long after it achieved parity with the U.S. in 1971, sponsored “peace” campaigns. These sought to convince Western and Japanese voters that it was U.S. nuclear weapons, rather than Soviet ambition, that chiefly threatened their security. The focus on weapons also perpetuated the fallacy that wars are caused by arms races, rather than by the ambitions of authoritarian regimes. Subscribing to this myth, concerned scientists started their Doomsday Clock, which purported to show how close the world was to nuclear war.

Had Japan believed that nuclear weapons represented an unacceptable threat, it could have abrogated its alliance with the U.S. any time after 1971. Fearing isolation in a dangerous neighborhood, it did not do so. Japan’s geography also reduced Moscow’s ability to play the antinuclear card. In 1992, with the Cold War won, the removal of nuclear weapons from U.S. warships further facilitated the political management of nuclear issues in Japan.

But the end of the Cold War brought neither perpetual peace nor the abolition of nuclear weapons. To the contrary, Russia seeks to compensate for its retrenched conventional power by putting greater emphasis on nuclear weapons, one of its few remaining claims to great-power status. North Korea is a rogue state with growing missile capabilities and nuclear ambiguity. Pyongyang’s test of a nuclear-capable three-stage missile over Japan in August 1998 means that every part of Japan is exposed to missile and nuclear attack from North Korea. China, supplier of missile and other technology to North Korea, seeks strategic dominance over East Asia and rattles its nuclear and missile arsenal at Taiwan. Yet China insists that Japan must remain nonnuclear, and must not participate in developing nonnuclear missile defenses to protect itself and U.S. forces in Japan.

Japan cannot escape nuclear weapons. It will either continue to rely on the U.S.’ extended deterrence, which provides nuclear protection in ways that do not alarm Japan’s neighbors. Or it will lose confidence in the U.S. alliance and will acquire nuclear weapons and long-range maritime capability of its own, as advocated by its recently sacked parliamentary vice minister for the Defense Agency, Shingo Nishimura. Either way, nuclear weapons will remain salient to Japan’s security.

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