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Defense chief Shigeru Ishiba’s rash remarks regarding a joint Japan-U.S. missile defense project deviate from Tokyo’s official defense policy and could give the impression that Japan is advancing the bilateral initiative beyond research to the development stage.

The Defense Agency director general made the remarks in talks with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Washington on Dec. 17, the same day the Bush administration announced plans to deploy by 2004 a national missile defense system designed to intercept ballistic missiles aimed at the mainland United States. The comments were highlighted by the Iraqi crisis and North Korea’s nuclear-arms program and missile exports, which have raised new concerns about international security.

Ishiba said he told Rumsfeld that Japan would study various factors, including the possibility of developing and deploying a missile defense system, while repeatedly denying that Japan would advance the joint research project to the development and deployment stage.

The joint program was triggered by North Korea’s 1998 test-firing of a Taepodong ballistic missile, which flew over Japan into the Pacific. The project started with research on so-called Navy Theater Wide Defense — now known as Sea-based Midcourse Defense — which fires antimissile missiles from Aegis destroyers. Research covered four components, including infrared seekers and kinetic warheads for missiles. Japan appropriated 13.6 billion yen to the project for four years.

The chief Cabinet secretary at the time said in a statement that Japan was involved only in the research phase of the project and that a decision was pending on whether to advance to the development and deployment stage. He also said the decision would be made after carefully studying the technical feasibility of ballistic missile defense and Japan’s future defense policy.

Missile defense involves constitutional problems (especially the issue of the right of collective defense), strategic balance in Asia, Japan’s diplomacy toward Asia, huge cost burdens that are now impossible to estimate and other important issues affecting Japan’s national interest.

On Dec. 16, Japan and the U.S. held a meeting of the bilateral Security Consultative Committee in Washington, the first such talks since the Bush administration came to power. A joint statement issued by the ministerial committee of defense and diplomatic officials said the conferees acknowledged the need to “intensify consultation and cooperation on missile defense.” The statement also said the Japanese side “reaffirmed that a ballistic missile defense system is an important consideration in Japanese defense policy, which is exclusively defense-oriented.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters after the meeting that the conferees agreed that missile defense “is an increasingly viable and attractive option,” given the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. Considerable differences of view appear to exist between Japan and the U.S., which seeks to expedite the deployment of a missile defense system.

U.S. withdrawal from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty paved the way for Washington to deploy a missile defense system. Bush reportedly decided to deploy a national missile defense system to counter North Korean missiles. The Taepodong 2 missile being developed by North Korea has a range of 3,500 to 6,000 kilometers and could hit U.S. military installations in Alaska and on Guam. The Rodong missile, reportedly already deployed by North Korea, has a range of 1,300 kilometers that covers Japan.

Ishiba said there has been substantial technical advancement in missile technology but failed to give specific information that would justify considering the development of missile defense.

U.S. tests on missile defense have failed three times out of eight over three years, including the latest miss this month. U.S. critics say the system is incomplete, and Rumsfeld admitted that the U.S. is deploying the system without waiting for complete development.

It is unclear how much the system will cost eventually. Some congressional estimates indicate $200 billion over 20 years. A Japanese cost estimate of a similar system is 100 billion yen a year, but that is pure speculation. It is unclear, though, whether the system’s strategic value would justify deployment.

A larger issue for Japan is how to deal with political and diplomatic problems. Japanese governments in the past have said Tokyo has a right of collective self-defense under international law but cannot exercise it under the nation’s war-renouncing Constitution. U.S. officials have complained that the restraints have impeded Japan-U.S. defense cooperation. Such a view was expressed by a group of officials, including Richard Armitage, now deputy secretary of state, and Paul Wolfowitz, now deputy defense secretary, in a 2000 report published before the Bush administration took office. The report released by the Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, said: “Japan’s prohibition against collective self-defense is a constraint on alliance cooperation. . . . Lifting this prohibition would allow for closer and more efficient security cooperation.”

Some experts argue that if missiles fired by Japan’s high-tech Aegis destroyers intercepted enemy missiles aimed at U.S. targets, Japan would be exercising the right of collective self-defense. How Japan deals with missile defense involves a constitutional question and would affect the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Missile defense networks are bound to seriously affect Asia’s strategic environment. China and North Korea are likely to develop their own missile systems to stay competitive. The post-post-Cold-War security environment in Asia is likely to become more unstable.

In a report to Congress last March on Japan-U.S. cooperation in ballistic missile defense, Richard Cronin, an Asian affairs expert, wrote that for China, North and South Korea, and some Southeast Asian countries, an integrated U.S.-Japan ballistic defense system “could be viewed as symbolizing the remilitarization of Japan under the cloak of alliance cooperation with the U.S.”

Japan will be walking a tightrope between alliance cooperation with the U.S. and diplomacy toward Asia. Missile defense will pose a serious question for Japan’s security strategy and diplomacy, beyond the problems of technology and cost. The rash remarks of Ishiba remind us that now is the time for the Diet to debate the issue with national interests in mind.

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