Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Aug 30, 2016
Japan's concerns: Will Obama change US nuclear policy?

In Japan, there has been considerable discussion on what many of its analysts consider a likely change in US policy on Japan’s nuclear deterrence posture. Many Japanese experts who have been watching President Barrack Obama’s nuclear policy believe that in the closing months of his tenure, Obama may launch measures to push his agenda articulated in his Prague speech in 2009. There is considerable concern that Obama might even come out with a new declaration whereby the US would pledge not to use nuclear weapons first unless an adversary threatened to use them against the US. Many even believe that the Obama administration might like to consider it as one of his lasting legacies.

But such a decision would mark a major departure from the decades old US policy. Even during the cold war years, when other nuclear powers pledged not to use nuclear weapons, the US alone refused to make such a declaration. The end of the cold war notwithstanding, the US continued to cling on to its posture, even though many analysts argued that there was no need for the US to do so. President Obama did not include it in his 2009 Prague speech, even though there was a strong expectation to that effect. In 2010, the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) indicated clearly Obama’s vision on the future role of the nuclear weapons. To be sure, it carried no specific reference to "no first use" of nuclear weapons. But it stated several things that were intended to reduce the salience of the nuclear weapons. It placed greater importance on the prevention of nuclear terrorism and proliferation; it stressed the need to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy; it underlined the need to maintain strategic deterrence and stability; it also emphasised the need to strengthen regional deterrence to reassure US allies and partners and it further recognised the importance of sustaining a safe, secure and effective nuclear arsenal.

The NPR indicated changes to the prevailing US nuclear policy. It noted that the US would not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with non-proliferation obligations. It spelt out clearly the fundamental role of the nuclear weapons to deter nuclear attack on the US, its allies and partners. It categorically assured that the US nuclear posture will play a vital role in regional security architecture and that proliferating states must understand that any attack on the US or its allies or partners would be defeated.

Among the allies in the Asia Pacific region who have been the recipients of American nuclear deterrence, the case of Japan is of special importance. In view of its unique experience as the only country to have suffered atomic bombing, it has to maintain a balance between its anti-nuclear sentiments and its genuine security imperatives. While it appreciates President Obama’s commitment to see a world without nuclear weapons, it cannot turn a blind eye to its own national security interests. To accompany Obama to Hiroshima to make an anti-nuclear pledge cannot provide a security guarantee against the nuclear threats coming from North Korea.

In opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of people record their strong opposition to nuclear weapons, but it does not gloss over their genuine concerns about the nuclear threats coming from external sources. In this sense, the "no first use" issue has seen public opinion sharply divided between two groups of people.

The first group, largely composed of pacifists, commends President Obama for his views on nuclear disarmament. They consider his Prague speech and his visit to Hiroshima (May 2016) as genuinely intended to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in the security strategies of various countries. They believe that Japan with its 1945 traumatic experiences should take the lead in welcoming Obama’s initiatives and work towards a world free from nuclear weapons. Influential Japanese dailies like Mainichi and Asahi have come out strongly in favour of supporting the 'no first use' policy which, they believe, would prevent "an accidental outbreak of nuclear war on account of misunderstanding US intentions."

Support for the 'no first use' idea has come from important political parties as well. Katsuya Okada, President of the Democratic Party, urged the Abe government to collaborate with Obama. He said, "If the 'no first policy' represents Obama’s determination to move a step forward to his vision of a world without nuclear weapons, what the Japanese government should do is to endorse it." Even the Komeito party, a partner of the ruling coalition, has shown interest in Obama’s policy shift.

In addition, about 40 eminent public figures from the Asia Pacific region, including Yoriko Kawaguchi, former Japanese Foreign Minister and Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister issued a statement on August 16, urging all nuclear power countries to endorse 'no first use' of nuclear weapons as a transitional step until nuclear disarmament is achieved.

The second group is represented largely by people who show considerable caution and fear that any change in the prevailing US nuclear posture would send a wrong signal, particularly to North Korea. Their concern arises from the fact that at a time when North Korea is arming itself with more nuclear weapons and missiles, any weakening of US deterrence would only upset the existing strategic stability and expose both Japan and South Korea to more serious nuclear threats and blackmail. They refer to the statement of the North Korean foreign ministry in March 2016 that Pyongyang did not rule out the possibility of being the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.

As for the Japanese government, it has always regarded American extended nuclear deterrence as a major component of the bilateral security alliance. Despite its anti-nuclear sentiments, the Japanese government has been actively cooperating with the US in the realm of nuclear deterrence and both countries have been conducting bilateral deterrence dialogue. Japan’s National Security Strategy (2013) calls the US nuclear deterrence as "indispensable" and agrees to cooperate closely with Washington. In the coming years, the primary task for the Japanese government is to maintain a proper balance between its commitment to US nuclear deterrence and a clear recognition of Japanese public sentiments against nuclear weapons.

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K. V. Kesavan

K. V. Kesavan

K.V. Kesavan (1938 2021) was Visiting Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He was one of the leading Indian scholars in the field of Japanese studies. Professor ...

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