Asia's Game of Thrones
Japan Mulls First-Strike Capability Against North Korea

After North Korea’s recent missile test off the Japanese coast, Tokyo is leaving all options on the table as it seeks to upgrade its own security posture. Financial Times:

North Korean missiles now pose a “real threat”, Japan’s government said on Thursday as it stepped up its search for countermeasures, including potentially acquiring the capability for a first strike against Pyongyang’s missile bases. […]

Answering questions in parliament, Tomomi Inada, defence minister, refused to rule out acquiring the capacity for a pre-emptive strike. “I do not rule out any method and we will consider various options, consistent of course with international law and the constitution of our country,” she said. […]

If Japan chooses to acquire such weapons, it has several options: Tokyo could buy Tomahawk cruise missiles, a missile-equipped drone or ground-to-air munitions for its manned F-35 aircraft.

Japan is also actively upgrading its existing anti-ballistic missile defences and considering whether to acquire the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) system that has caused the controversy between Beijing and Seoul.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has long faced opposition for for his remilitarization initiative and for stretching the limits of Japan’s pacifist constitution, but the threat from Pyongyang could strengthen his case. As the FT piece notes, there has been little public backlash against new calls for a first-strike capability, and according to the Wall Street Journal, the opposition Democratic Party is keeping an open mind, with one influential lawmaker saying it would be “irresponsible” to maintain the status quo.

Naturally, this is not good news for China, which is adamantly opposed to Japanese remilitarization. China’s bitter diplomatic spat with South Korea over THAAD is a recent reminder of how vociferously China opposes any unfavorable change to the Asian security balance. The prospect of Japan acquiring THAAD, much less a series of offensive capabilities designed to deter North Korea, is sure to raise hackles in Beijing.

Judging by Trump’s antagonistic stance toward China and North Korea, his support for the THAAD deployment in South Korea, and his desire for allies to contribute more to their own security, Trump is likely to welcome Japan’s proposals to beef up its defense. Will Trump’s hawkishness push Beijing into a defensive crouch, or force them to cooperate in reining in Pyongyang? The early signs for cooperation not encouraging, but Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s Asia trip next week might provide a clearer indication of where things are going.

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