INSIGHTS into the WORLD / Japan should acquire counterstrike ability

By Shinichi Kitaoka / Special to The Yomiuri ShimbunJapan should build up not only a missile defense system, but also counterstrike capabilities in response to North Korea’s military threat. In 2013, I put this idea into consideration when I chaired the Council on Security and Defense Capabilities, the government’s expert panel tasked with compiling security strategy guidelines.

However, neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Defense Ministry and the Self-Defense Forces showed enthusiastic support for the idea, which therefore was not incorporated in a final report submitted to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. To be precise, my opinion was implicitly buried within the phrase “nado” (among others) when the panel appointed by the prime minister concluded that Japan would deal with the North’s threat with a “missile defense system, among others.”

The essence of what I advocate as “counterstrike capabilities” is that Japan should possess an ability to carry out a counteroffensive with conventional weapons, by closely cooperating and preparing with Washington based on the Japan-U.S. alliance, and only in the event it is attacked by an adversary.

This is my long-held opinion. In 2008, as the project leader of a security studies program launched by the independent think tank Tokyo Foundation, I compiled a policy proposal titled, “New Security Strategy of Japan: Multilayered and Cooperative Security Strategy.” In it, I referred to the necessity for strengthening Japan’s own offensive capabilities in a way different from those of the United States.

However, there was virtually no reaction from within Japanese society. It was only the U.S. Embassy in Japan that contacted us, asking what kind of offensive power we envisaged.

Nine years on, many newspapers covered a policy recommendation concerning Japan’s counterstrike capabilities released in January this year by a study group, which I headed, that had been commissioned by the Institute for International Policy Studies, headed by former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. Not even the liberal newspapers criticized the proposal, but no newspapers expressed strong support, either.

Restrained yet determined

Now let me touch on a similar concept — a preemptive attack on an adversary’s bases. In the existing official view of the Japanese government, such an offensive would be constitutional. In 1956, then Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama said in the Diet, “It is unreasonable to think that the purpose of the Constitution is that Japan has to sit and wait for death when it comes under attack by missiles and other weapons.” This statement has become established as a security option. Under international law, too, when the threat of attack by an adversary is “imminent or actual,” a preemptive strike is recognized as part of the right to self-defense.

Nonetheless, in practical terms, a preemptive attack is very difficult to carry out. In reality, it is not easy to detect the precise locations of all enemy bases, so a preemptive attack may not necessarily result in their complete destruction. Moreover, the country launching the attack risks being denounced as an aggressor.

As for when to stage an offensive, I think it should follow an adversary’s attack on our country. Also, the counterstrike should be carried out in a way that is restrained yet sufficiently determined to destroy all of the adversary’s relevant facilities. Targets should not be limited to military bases, and the possibility of killing the leader of the enemy state should not be ruled out.

There are some people who insist that Japan should have a sophisticated intelligence-gathering ability of its own first and foremost to become capable of launching an offensive on its own. Broadly speaking, they are right. But is it really possible for Japan to develop a robust intelligence-gathering ability of its own in a short period of time? I am afraid that the effort will end up being too late anyway. What’s more, if Japan insists too much on its own intelligence-gathering ability, the United States may become skeptical of this country. That is why I have been calling for the realization of Japan’s own offensive capabilities in thorough cooperation with the United States.

Regarding the type of counterstrike capabilities Japan should have, those using conventional weapons will suffice. Given that Japan is a party to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, we cannot consider nuclear armaments as an option now or in the foreseeable future. I think a conventional counteroffensive can be effective to a certain extent in repelling the enemy.

There are also those who argue that counterstrike capabilities are contradictory to the country’s principle of exclusive self-defense. However, exclusive self-defense does not mean that Japan will refrain from waging an offensive at all. Carl von Clausewitz wrote that “defense in general” is “no absolute state of waiting and repulse.” When a country wages war to retake a territory captured by an adversary, from its viewpoint, its operations are part of a defensive operation, but, when seen from a regional geopolitical perspective, its counterstrike is an offensive if it takes place beyond that territory.

BMD reliable enough?

Why do I propose the possession of counterstrike capabilities? First, the ballistic missile defense (BMD) system is not fully reliable — how accurately it works is not clearly known. If North Korea fires a salvo of missiles, including decoys, it is hard to imagine that the BMD system will intercept and destroy every last one of them. Furthermore, a missile shield is extremely expensive. It does not make sense for a country under threat to rely on a defense system of questionable effectiveness.

Second, I have some misgivings about the way the United States is likely to launch an offensive against an adversary that attacks Japan.

The U.S. commitment to defending Japan under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty means, in specific terms, that the U.S. armed forces will make either a preemptive offensive or a counterstrike against an enemy state if Japan comes under armed attack. Because an adversary fears such counterstrike capabilities, they will deter it from attacking Japan.

I mostly trust that the United States will abide by its promise. That said, however, I assume that the United States is not likely to resort to an offensive against North Korea unless the North’s missiles hit Japan’s territorial waters or soil, causing casualties among Japanese people. Also, the U.S. side is unlikely to stage a massive counterstrike if Japan’s casualties are not heavy.

On the other hand, if the United States did go ahead with a massive counterstrike while knowing Japan had suffered limited casualties, North Korea would be more likely to make an all-out attack on Japan, of course including U.S. military bases in this country. If a U.S. attack on the North in response to limited casualties in Japan causes heavy casualties among the North Korean people, Washington may be loudly criticized internationally.

Also, what will the United States really do when North Korea finally develops the ability to target Los Angeles with either precision-guided intercontinental ballistic missiles or submarine-launched ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads? I doubt that Washington would order an offensive against the North while knowing that a large number of citizens in the second-largest U.S. city would be inevitably killed.

Put simply, Japan has virtually no say about the extent and range of any offensive the United States may launch in this region. Is it appropriate for a country to leave its fate up to a foreign country to such an extent?

Then, how should Japan ensure that its offensive capabilities would be used exclusively for counterstrikes? It should not go any farther than a statement to that effect by the prime minister. This is not a case that requires new legislation.

Some skeptics may raise the possibility that a hawkish prime minister may choose to carry out a preemptive attack on a foreign country. But there is practically no chance for such a scenario to come true. If Japan launches a preemptive strike against any country adjacent to Japan without being first hit by that country, this country will likely come under heavy retaliatory attack. Moreover, a significant unknown would be whether the United States would really support Japan in a war triggered by Japan itself. Therefore, I think there is practically no possibility that a Japanese prime minister would order a preemptive offensive against any country near Japan after issuing a statement that Japan will resort to an offensive only to counterstrike.

Deplorable situation

Prime Minister Abe just dissolved the House of Representatives for a snap general election scheduled for Oct. 22. The country now faces a deplorable situation because of North Korea’s missile and nuclear threat. I do not feel adequately secure about the government’s responses to the menace, but those of the opposition parties make me feel even far less secure. Will the security of Japan continue to be assured if the opposition camp comes to power? This is exactly what voters are really worried about.

It was especially regrettable that in 2015 the then Democratic Party of Japan turned into a staunch opponent of the government-submitted security-related bills that were passed to allow the nation to exercise the right to collective self-defense. The DPJ’s opposition followed the shared judgment of three constitutional scholars who were invited to speak in the Diet that the bills were unconstitutional. Then, the Diet’s focus of discussion almost completely shifted to the constitutionality of the bills from the original point at issue — whether or not those bills were imperative to the security of Japan.

In September 2015, the bills were voted into law. Today, nearly all security experts agree that the new legislation is vital for close security cooperation between Japan and the United States. The Democratic Party — which emerged in March 2016 as the main opposition party through mergers of the DPJ and other opposition groups — maintains that it will either repeal or change the law. Does the DP think it can really afford to keep sticking to such a policy stance, considering the ongoing security situation surrounding Japan?

I think such a policy stance is to blame for the DP’s de facto dissolution. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who has just launched a new political party called “Kibo no To” (Party of Hope), says her party’s policy platform is basically not much different from that of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in terms of security policies and constitutional change. She has already clarified that those lawmakers deserting the DP yet remaining absolutely opposed to the security-related legislation are not eligible to join Kibo no To.

If the new party continues to be true to the policy stance spelled out by Koike, Kibo no To has a sufficient chance of becoming an alternative party capable of superseding the LDP by garnering the support of those who are dissatisfied with the Abe administration but feel uneasy about the DP’s security policy.

In any case, the security of the country will be the most important issue in the forthcoming election. I urge that both voters and candidates seriously think about counterstrike capabilities on this occasion.

■ Kitaoka is president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, a post he assumed in October 2015 after serving as president of the International University of Japan. Concurrently a professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo, he specializes in Japanese political and diplomatic history. From 2004 to 2006, he served as Japan’s ambassador to the United Nations. From February 2013 to May 2014, he was deputy chairman of the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security.Speech

Click to play


+ -

Generating speech. Please wait...

Become a Premium Member to use this service.

Become a Premium Member to use this service.

Offline error: please try again.