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09:48 20 October 2016

OPINION: Complexity of the nuclear "no first use" debate in Japan

By Masakatsu Ota
TOKYO, Oct. 20, Kyodo

On Sept. 5, The New York Times reported that President Barack Obama was unlikely to declare a nuclear "no first use (NFU)" policy for the United States when he took the stage for the United Nations General Assembly. After making it known to the public that he was considering NFU and a number of other nuclear weapons changes since his historic May 2016 visit to Hiroshima, the authors of the Times article show that the possible reactions of allies such as Japan may have played a role in tempering Obama's ambitions regarding these policies in the final months of his administration.

Even if President Obama does not change course, the next U.S. president will likely consider a range of nuclear weapons decisions. These include whether to change declaratory policies (such as NFU) and whether to alter the current nuclear weapons modernization plan. To examine these decisions with the utmost care, the next U.S. president may order a new Nuclear Posture Review be conducted, given that it will be seven eventful years since the last review was published.

Examining the range of perspectives of various parties in allied countries can help inform how the next president, and his or her administration, approaches these forthcoming nuclear weapons decisions. One of good harbingers should be Japan.

When you talk to security bureaucrats inside the Japanese government, you will hear a lot of critical and negative monotone views on nuclear NFU policy. However, if you broaden the scope, you can hear totally different voices and perspectives from diverse actors of Japanese politics, even from a key coalition partner of the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Definitely, a nuanced complexity on this important issue exists here in Tokyo.

"If NFU policy is seriously considered by the Obama administration as reported, it is unacceptable for us. Japanese security must not be considered in the context of a nuclear-weapon-free world, but should be so in the context of real national security. We can't send the wrong message to China and North Korea at this moment."

Four days after The Washington Post broke a story about the ongoing nuclear policy review by the Obama administration in July, one highly-placed official who is very close to Prime Minister Abe revealed to me this critical view against potential changes to the U.S. nuclear declaratory policy.

"Why should Japan accept it? He is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, so we have to?" he added, referring to the prize Obama received in part thanks to his bold vision of "a world without nuclear weapons" that he outlined in April 2009 in his famous "Prague Speech," still highly and widely appreciated by the Japanese general public.

Most senior security officials within the Japanese government whom I have contacted emphasized strong concern and hard opposition to the policy concept called NFU. They each gave almost the same explanation and rationale: "Complete exclusion of nuclear first use will definitely undermine the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States."

"Since the Obama administration judged it was too early to declare a 'sole purpose' policy in the decision-making process of the Nuclear Posture Review in 2010, what kind of progress have we seen on our security environment? We now have neighboring states which increase their nuclear arsenals."

One senior Japanese official I met recently touched on the nuclear-employment policy concept called "sole purpose," similar to NFU, which is to declare that the sole purpose of possessing nuclear weapons is to deter others from initiating nuclear attack against the United States or its allies. A policy option of declaring "sole purpose" was discussed, but finally not adopted by the Obama administration during the comprehensive nuclear policy review from 2009 to 2010.

This same Japanese official also raised another reason why the Japanese government is not able to support NFU by emphasizing the existence of North Korea's chemical and biological weapon programs, a big source of concern for the Japanese security community who are extremely fearful of the negative implications of a potential change to the U.S. nuclear declaratory policy, after observing the recent unprecedented frequency of missile tests by North Korea.

According to my exchanges with U.S. officials and specialists, a main reason for rejecting "sole purpose" in 2010 was the chemical and biological weapons arsenals possessed or developed by a few adversaries like North Korea and Syria. However, the latter chemical weapons stockpile is effectively gone by now.

If you bend your ear to the other side of the Japanese political house, you can hear different opinions about this topic, which has become more sensitive for Japanese security circles in recent months.

"I have expectations that Mr. Obama will take concrete steps toward a nuclear-free world. I would also like to believe that Mr. Obama will show leadership in the global community," said Natsuo Yamaguchi, a top leader of the Komeito, after being asked about the U.S. consideration of adopting NFU during a press conference on Aug. 18. For the past 15 years, the Komeito has been an indispensable political partner of the Liberal Democratic Party that Abe has led since 2012.

In Japan, Yamaguchi and his Komeito colleagues are well known as enthusiastic supporters of nuclear disarmament and Obama's vision of a nuclear-free world. Recently, one senior Diet member of the Komeito told me in private that it would be too illogical and unreasonable for the Japanese government, especially the Japanese Foreign Ministry, to object to potential adoption of NFU by the Obama administration because the Foreign Ministry publicly has proposed that nuclear de-alerting procedures should be taken by all nuclear weapon states including the United States in order to decrease risks of an accidental nuclear launch.

On top of that, the Foreign Ministry has strongly endorsed Obama's initiative to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategies in the public domain since Obama assumed the highest office in 2009. "So, the government of Japan cannot oppose NFU. No, they can't," this Komeito Diet member repeated.

The aforementioned comments by Yamaguchi and his heavyweight colleague in the Diet demonstrate a healthy policy view on how Japan should take a delicate balance between its security policy coordinated with the United States and nuclear disarmament/non-proliferation agendas propounded by itself as the only nation which suffered from nuclear attacks in such a devastating and inhumane manner. Also, these comments indicate a constructive and prudent way of thinking about a sustainable deterrence posture necessary for Japanese security, in other words, a more appropriate and robust mixture of deterrence dependent on nuclear and conventional weapons, missile defense and other political, diplomatic and economic measures.

If you look beyond the Abe Cabinet, you can find a much broader range of supporters for NFU. Former Democratic Party President Katsuya Okada, better known overseas as a former foreign minister with strong nuclear disarmament credentials, recently expressed his support for potential policy changes by the United States, saying "If Mr. Obama tries to promote a nuclear-free world, the Japanese government should cooperate. Otherwise, Japan itself may lose the significance that Obama came to Hiroshima for."

Okada's predecessor, former Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, signed with 39 other opinion leaders in the Asia-Pacific region a statement to "encourage a U.S. No First Use policy and call on America's Asia-Pacific allies to support it." The statement, published on the front page of some newspapers in Japan in August, said the following: "If, following the U.S. example, No First Use were adopted by all nuclear armed states, the policy could become the centerpiece of a global nuclear restraint regime, strengthen strategic stability, mute crisis instability, solidify the boundary between nuclear and conventional weapons, and further entrench the norm against the use of nuclear weapons."

This succinct and powerful statement was signed by other Japanese nuclear specialists such as Tatsujiro Suzuki, director of Research Center for Nuclear Weapons Abolition (RECNA) at Nagasaki University, and Nobuyasu Abe, current commissioner of the Japanese Atomic Energy Commission and former senior diplomat. Personally, I totally agree with their view, which weighs policy merits stemming not only from nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation perspectives but also national and regional security perspectives.

Finally, in order to elaborate more on the complexity of Japanese's NFU debate, I want to introduce my recent private conversations with Japan's top security officials, who are intimately familiar with nuclear policy discussions between Japan and the United States. They spoke on condition of anonymity.

One prominent official flatly rejected an option of NFU for security reasons. But, responding to my question, he admitted that the Japanese government could consider accepting "sole purpose," because this policy can leave more ambiguity for Japan and other dependents of the U.S. umbrella than NFU. As he and I theoretically discussed and agreed, "sole purpose" does not preclude nuclear first use, which will disrupt adversaries' missile launches in an immediate and irreversible way. He acknowledged that "sole purpose" is much more acceptable for Japan in terms of national security sovereignty backed by the inalienable right of individual self-defense stipulated both in the United Nations Charter and the Japanese Constitution.

However, this official, who has strong influence with Prime Minister Abe, also demonstrated another complexity, saying he was doubtful that such legal sensitivity and political subtlety would attract sufficient attention of the right sort from the highest level of the Obama administration. "On this specific issue, we have had no consultation whatsoever with the U.S. government. We have just made some requests to the U.S. side, (asking) 'Don't leak to media'," he added.

Another high-ranking security official indicated that the Japanese government is willing to have a consultation with the U.S. He also emphasized that they are extremely curious to know how the U.S. would take complementary measures to guarantee effective deterrence, not only backed by nuclear weapons, which can keep raising the threshold for the potential use of chemical and biological weapons by North Korea, if President Obama decides to adopt NFU.

Just looking at the complexity of the Japanese debate regarding NFU, I can assertively reach one definite conclusion. There is a plenty of room for Japan to accept and welcome potential policy changes to the current U.S. nuclear declaratory policy. However, this will require extensive work and consultations across the Pacific that have not been conducted since the White House first indicated through the media and think tanks in Washington that it was considering NFU or other policy changes.

Perhaps the following is one of the most important lessons that the next president may take from this summer's experiences. With deep consultations that allow allies to understand the nuanced desires and concerns of one another, the next administration can help the president it serves to succeed in achieving the policy solutions that she or he believes best provides for American and international security.

(Masakatsu Ota is a senior/editorial writer of Kyodo News in Tokyo)

==Kyodo

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