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Japanese Nukes a Possibility if China's Power Spikes, Analysts Warn

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON --  Any major U.S. force reduction in the Asia-Pacific could prompt Japan to build its own nuclear weapons to ward off aggression from an ascendant China, independent experts and former U.S. government analysts warned in a report published on Friday.

It would probably take an economic crisis far more intense and drawn out than the recession sparked in 2008 to force a substantial U.S. military withdrawal from the region. Such a move, though, could lead Japan to decide it can no longer rely on U.S. extended deterrence for security in an increasingly volatile region, says the lengthy analysis by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"If mishandled, China’s growing military capabilities and presence could weaken Japanese confidence in America’s security commitment to Tokyo and increase support in Japan for a much larger and offensive-oriented conventional military and perhaps even the acquisition of nuclear weapons," according to a summary of the 300-page assessment.

Conversely, an enduring U.S. commitment to the region would likely avert what could be the most dangerous of six possible dynamics that might govern security relations between Beijing, Tokyo and Washington in the year 2030, the findings indicate. The assessment aims to inform discussions on future U.S.-Japanese security ties; its nine authors include former U.S. Navy strategic planner Paul Giarra and Douglas Paal, who served as a national security staffer under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Japan has long been acknowledged to possess the atomic ingredients and technological capacity to build its own nuclear force, but the island nation has forsworn nuclear arms production since being the target of two U.S. atomic bombs in World War II. A number of prominent Japanese politicians, though, have urged the government over the years to break those self-imposed commitments in favor of constructing its own atomic arsenal.

The nation already possesses sufficient plutonium for 2,000 nuclear bombs, and the country's recently installed prime minister has reinvigorated efforts to open a long-delayed facility capable of extracting an equal amount of material each year from used nuclear fuel, according to a Wednesday article in the Wall Street Journal. The push to activate the complex has reportedly worried Washington, and the State Department on Thursday said a senior-level envoy would visit Japan next week to discuss security matters including "nonproliferation" and "extended deterrence."

Tokyo would probably need several years to deploy forces capable of launching a nuclear counterstrike, according to the report. "During this period," it states, "China could be tempted to launch some form of preventive attack in order to neutralize the emergence of an independent and, in Beijing’s view, unpredictable nuclear power on its periphery."

The area around Japan is likely by 2030 to see "increases in the military capabilities and nearby presence of China," the analysts said. Beijing, though, is more likely to tap military advantages for leverage in disputes over resources or island territories than to directly attack a neighbor, the report says.

Boosts in the quantity, range and capabilities of China's land- and air-based nuclear forces could play into a significant increase in the nation's military power, the assessment indicates. China is believed to currently hold roughly 240 nuclear warheads, and Taiwan last month said Beijing is wrapping up development of two advanced nuclear-ready ballistic missiles and of a submarine capable of initiating long-range nuclear strikes.

The United States would retain a significant nuclear advantage over China in that situation, according to the authors. Even if regional developments lead to "limited conflict" in East Asia, the U.S. nuclear deterrent would probably retain its "fundamental credibility," they wrote, noting separately that crises involving other regional players such as North Korea or Taiwan could also affect Japanese security considerations.

A major Chinese economic decline could alternatively help Washington maintain its military edge and result in a "mitigated threat" from Beijing, according to the report's authors. That scenario is "less likely" but still "quite possible," they wrote.

"The status quo is likely to prove unsustainable," but U.S. and Japanese policy-makers "will probably be tempted to avoid making many of the hard choices required over the next 15-20 years," the authors wrote. They said no "silver bullets" can ensure minimal tensions and costs to the three nations. However, Washington could try to maximize prospects for the Japanese-U.S. partnership either by seeking "unambiguous allied regional primacy" through strategies such as the AirSea Battle Concept, or by pursuing one of two alternative approaches centered on balancing alliance forces against those of Beijing.

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