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Asia’s Game of Thrones Goes Nuclear


Japan is on the verge of restarting a nuclear processing facility that could push angry neighboring countries into an arms race, the WSJ reported last night. The Rokkasho facility, in Japan’s northern Aomori prefecture, is purely civilian in nature, Japan’s leaders assert. But it is capable of producing nine tons of weapons-grade plutonium each year, enough for 2,000 bombs.

The chorus of hawks in Japan and South Korea urging their governments to consider pursuing nuclear weapons to counter North Korea and nuclear-armed China is growing louder and louder. The decision to restart Rokkasho could elevate political anxiety around Asia to dangerous new levels:

U.S. officials believe Japan’s neighbors, particularly China, South Korea and Taiwan, are closely monitoring Rokkasho and its possible commissioning to gauge whether they also should seek to develop their own nuclear-fuel technologies, or in Beijing’s case, expand them.

“As a practical matter, if it operates Rokkasho, it will force China to respond to re-establish that it, Beijing, not Tokyo, is the most dominant nuclear player in East Asia,” said Henry Sokolski, who heads the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, a Washington think tank. “Such nuclear tit-for-tats-manship could get ugly.”

This is the price for the failure to end North Korea’s nuclear drive—massive Japanese production of weapons-grade plutonium. The move garnered a clear vote of no confidence in the US. It will intensify nuclear competition around the region and is likely to provoke angry responses in China and both Koreas.

Great; that’s all we need.

[Rokkasho processing plant photo courtesy of Wikimedia]

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  • T. Greer

    This has less to do with North Korea and more to do with America’s “pivot to Asia.” Peter Lee explained things very well in Asia Times Online:

    “Campbell, after all, as assistant secretary for East Asia in Hillary Clinton’s State Department, was a key architect and proponent of the “pivot to Asia”, which was meant to elicit satisfactory behavior from China – and, in the process, demonstrate US leadership and relevance – by confronting the PRC with a phalanx of Pacific democracies (plus Vietnam of course) determined to impose liberal security, economic, and human rights norms on the rogue superpower.

    The inevitable result of US backing has been an increased willingness of the Philippines, Vietnam, and Japan to stand up to China, which has contributed a virtuous cycle of Chinese hostility and a further defensive cleaving of the smaller nations to the United States.

    The less-than-desirable by-product has been the tendency of the pivot’s designated junior partners to tug at the dragon’s whiskers for national and domestic political reasons, secure in the knowledge that the United States must back them up, even if the confrontation runs contrary to long-term US interests and objectives for the region…..

    Stroking the Senkaku fetish might be excused as an unavoidable political imperative for Abe, given the rise in anti-Chinese feeling in Japan. However, under Abe the Japanese government has unilaterally undertaken a series of other moves to strengthen the hands of Pacific nations seeking to counter China.

    In recent months, the Japanese government has agreed to provide 10 patrol boats to the Philippines; enticed Taiwan to abandon its anti-Japanese stance on the Senkakus (which, as a matter of proximity, really belong to Taiwan) by granting Taiwanese fishing vessels the right to fish near the islands (though not within the 12 mile limit); offered its economic good offices as an alternative to China as a destination for Mongolian coal; and scheduled talks with Vietnam on cooperation in “maritime security”, also known as the provision of patrol boats along the Philippine model.

    The spectacle of the Japanese government cutting all sorts of anti-China deals in Asia on its own kick raises the specter of an independent Japanese security policy and, with it, the kind of destabilization that the US pivot to Asia was meant to pre-empt…..

    Unfortunately for the United States – and the pivot – it looks like the Japanese military cat is permanently out of the bag, as a result of Japan’s growing unwillingness to accept the second-class military status imposed upon it by its defeat in World War II.

    The Abe government is determined to revise Japan’s “pacifist” constitution and dilute its restrictions on military operations outside Japan’s borders once the LDP gains expected dominance of the Diet’s upper as well as lower house – and the ability to unilaterally amend the constitution – following elections in July.

    Actually, a lot of nibbling has already taken place. Recently, the Japanese cabinet decided that Japanese ground forces could be dispatched overseas “to assist in the evacuation of Japanese nationals” from danger zones. Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera asserted Japan’s legal right to engage in preemptive strike to forestall an imminent attack, while stating that Japan had not developed that capability “as yet”.

    During Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the United States, the Japanese team also touted the concept of “collective self-defense”, which states that the Japanese self-defense forces could come to the defense of an ally, ie fight a war outside Japan’s borders as long as it was “defending an ally”. To demonstrate the benefits of the collective self-defense posture, the Japanese team also suggested that Japan’s missile defense network would be pleased to knock down a North Korean missile headed for the United States.

    The Obama administration, while undoubtedly appreciative of the offer to shelter beneath Japan’s missile defense umbrella, was perhaps more worried about Japan knocking down something else and starting World War III, and demurred.

    In a relatively unnoticed but equally significant development, the Obama administration also objected strongly to Japan’s plans to process its spent fuel rods domestically and enlarge its sizable stockpile of bomb-worthy plutonium metal. [3] Another indication that Japan has slipped the leash is in the area of “Abenomics”.”

    Peter Lee. “Japan Stirs U.S. Pivot Soup.” Asia Times Online. 26 April 2013.

  • Tim Godfrey

    The Japanese are extremely worried that if a confrontation with China comes the US will choose relations with China over Japan.

    It is not clear how any words of assurances from the US today can change the fact that the US congress may decide that supporting Japan at some point in the future is not in its best interest.

    For this reason, Japan needs to take more responsibility for its own security and it is not clear why pundits in America don’t understand this need.

    That said, the are things that Abe does which needlessly inflame the situation (musing about what is invasion is a good example). But these provocations are separate from the need for Japan to build up defense capabilities that are not dependent on approval from the US congress.

  • Luke Lea

    Personally, looking down the road, if I were Japanese I wouldn’t want to depend on the US nuclear umbrella. Would you? I’m thinking of China, not North Korea.

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