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Japanese Nuclear Proliferation: a Coming Firestorm

By: Martin Sigalow

Japan’s newfound commitment to deploying nuclear technology for potentially military means should be a concern for the United States and its allies around the world.

In early June, Japan amended its Atomic Energy Basic Act to add a clause that listed “guaranteeing the nation’s security” as one of the goals of nuclear power. [1] The Japanese government still has other barriers to advancing a determinate proliferation agenda, such as constitutional checks[2] and widespread popular resistance.[3] Despite these obvious hurdles to nuclear production, though, this action is clearly a meaningful first step towards Japan redefining its already ample nuclear resources for potential military purposes. [4] Additional suspicions were raised about Japanese nuclear ambitions when Japan increased production of plutonium, despite over 35 tons of preexisting stockpiles.[5] This is a significant indication of Japan’s growing inclination for the use of nuclear weapons given that Japan has no fully functional nuclear reactors operating now.[6]

Given the confluence of factors indicating a critical first step in the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the United States should exert its influence over Japan to try and discourage further development. Now is a key time for the United States to act before more changes are made. In more ways than one, Japan is definitely on the brink of a meaningful transition to going nuclear. [7] Timing is critical because the Japanese already have much of the infrastructure for developing offensive nuclear weapons; Japan has incredibly advanced long range missile and satellite technology that would make the transition to nuclear missile development incredibly easy, [8] especially given that Japan has enough weapons grade plutonium to make 15,000 nuclear bombs. [9]

The US exerts significant influence over Japanese policy. More than merely an ally of Japan, the United States helped to craft and maintain Japan’s first democratic government after World War II. The United States and Japan are also inseparably linked through trade and technological development.  Furthermore, Japan still intimately depends on the US for credible conventional deterrence. A strong demand for the US will be likely to be met with minimal resistance. Since Japanese impediments to nuclear proliferation are primarily diplomatic or institutional, the United States should exert its diplomatic muscle now. Otherwise, it may be forced to use its non-diplomatic muscle later, and in that world the pieces would be much harder to pick up.

A nuclear Japan would be disastrous for world security. Although it is unlikely that Japan itself would initiate nuclear conflict, it is probable that Japanese nuclear proliferation would ignite a broader arms race across the Asia-Pacific region. A nuclear Japan might convince a South Korea surrounded on three sides by nuclear powers that it needs more than a patchy United States umbrella to ensure its national security to develop a greater national defense strategy. Any chance that still remains to denuclearize or contain North Korea would be lost.[10] In addition to concerns about region specific proliferation, Japan’s harsh stance against nuclear weapons has been the cornerstone of the international non-proliferation regime. Continued Japanese commitment to reducing the spread of nuclear weapons is important because Japan is a country under the most encompassing of United States’ nuclear security guarantees. Japanese defection from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty regulations would send a global signal of indifference towards global non-proliferation goals among the most western of countries and effectively render irrelevant any recent gains to the image of the NPT and the IAEA.

Martin Sigalow is a rising sophomore at Emory University. He is pursuing a double major in Economics and Philosophy. Martin is a college debater and high school debate coach. His international affairs interests include US relations with divergent countries, global women’s rights issues, and the structure of the global foreign policy arena.


[1] Nam-Ku, Jung “Japan hinting at using nuclear power for ‘security’ instead of energy” The Hankyoreh, June 22, 2012, accessed July 1, 2012, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/539120.html.

[2] “Yonhap News Agency “Japan's bill on atomic regulations raises suspicion of nuclear armament” Yonhap News Agency, July 1, 2012, accessed July 1, 2012, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/national/2012/06/21/7/0301000000AEN20120621003900315F.HTML

[3] Harrison, Selig “Nuclear weapons in Japan? Not now,” USA Today, March 22, 2012, accessed June 28, 2012, http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-03-23-column23_ST1_N.htm

[4] Nam-Ku, Jung “Japan hinting at using nuclear power for ‘security’ instead of energy” The Hankyoreh, June 22, 2012, accessed July 1, 2012, http://english.hani.co.kr/arti/english_edition/e_international/539120.html.

[5] Associated Press, “Japan to make more plutonium despite big stockpile,” Associated Press, June 1, 2012, accessed July 1, 2012, http://www.foxnews.com/world/2012/06/01/japan-to-make-more-plutonium-despite-big-stockpile/

[6] Ibid

[7] Byong-Chul, Lee, “Japan's Nuclear Ambitions Awaken,“ Asia Sentinel June 28, 2012, accessed June 28, 2012, http://asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4640&Itemid=176

[8] The Dong-a Ilbo“Japan`s road toward nuclear armament?” Dong-A Ilbo, June 21, 2012, accessed June 28, 2012, http://english.donga.com/srv/service.php3?biid=2012062272458

[9] The Korea Times, “Japan’s nuclear ambition,” Korea Times, June 22, 2012, accessed June 28, 2012, http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/2012/06/202_113619.html

[10] Byong-Chul, Lee, “Japan's Nuclear Ambitions Awaken,“ Asia Sentinel June 28, 2012, accessed June 28, 2012, http://asiasentinel.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=4640&Itemid=176

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