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Deutsches Institut für Japanstudien

Ballistic Missile Defence and the Implications for Japanese Security Policy

February 28, 2001 - September 25, 2016 / 18.30
Christopher Hughes, University of Warwick

BSince December 1998, the Japanese government has formally committed itself to undertake cooperative technological research with the US into Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD). Japanese government policy-makers stress that the BMD project remains at present purely at the research stage, and that separate government decisions will be necessary before any progression towards the stages of development, production and deployment. Nevertheless, even at the research phase it is clear that both Japanese policy-makers involved with BMD and outsider commentators alike envisage a host of problems associated with the project at each potential stage of its development, and which have implications for Japan’s entire security policy. The problems include the feasibility of BMD technology, cost-effectiveness evaluations, constitutional issues, and the strategic implications of BMD for its relations with the Korean Peninsula, the US, and China.

The argument of this paper is that for Japanese policy-makers the pursuit of BMD will make the security relationship with China, which has already become highly complex due to the introduction since 1997 of the revised Guidelines for US-Japan Defence Cooperation, even more fraught and hazardous. Indeed, it may be the case that BMD, to a far greater extent than the revised Guidelines, contains the potential to bring existing Sino-Japanese, Sino-US, and US-Japan security tensions to a head, with destabilising effects for each of these bilateral relationships and for regional and global security as a whole.  Specifically, the paper makes this argument based on the fact that, even though the revised Guidelines have without doubt been responsible for ratcheting up security tensions amongst Japan, China and the US over the last three years and been capable of sparking conflict through the miscalculation of any of the three concerned parties, their cautious framing by Japanese policy-makers has provided Japan, the US, and to some extent China also, with sufficient room for strategic manoeuvre to allow them to ameliorate tensions and avoid final conflict scenarios if deemed necessary. However, in contrast to the uncomfortable but near tolerable modus vivendi offered to all sides by the revised Guidelines, it can be argued that BMD presents Japan with a qualitatively more dangerous challenge for the management of its bilateral security relations with China and the US-Japan alliance. This is because the inherent technological and military logic of BMD dictates that Japan becomes more fully integrated than ever before in US military strategy in East Asia and towards China. Taken to its extreme, and without sufficiently careful management by Japanese policy-makers, the subsequent logic of BMD could be to undermine Japan’s political, diplomatic and strategic freedom and to set it on a collision course with China’s perceived inviolable security interests.

Nevertheless, as indicated above, this paper also argues that the BMD issue, although it possesses a greater potential than the revised Guidelines to eliminate Japanese ‘escape clauses’ in managing its strategic relations with China and the US, could, if managed with the same type of dogged skill that was shown during the Guidelines review, also be turned to the perceived advantage of Japan’s security. Thus, this paper seeks not only to evaluate the potential risks and advantages of BMD for Japanese security, but also how these are perceived by Japan’s security policy-makers themselves and what strategies, if any, they have devised to navigate their way through these.