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  • Should Japan Adopt Conventional Missile Strike Capabilities?
  • Kelly C. Wadsworth (bio)

Japan, Security Policy, Missile Capabilities, U.S.-Japan Alliance

[End Page 61]

executive summary

This article evaluates the three strongest arguments in favor of Japan obtaining an independent conventional missile strike capability: rising regional threats, the country's right to defend itself from such threats, and the potential to make a stronger contribution to the U.S.-Japan alliance.

main argument

With North Korea's growing nuclear capabilities and China's increasing military assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific, the issue of Japan's right to defend itself via a conventional first-strike capability has regained salience in the security discourse. High-level interviews and in-depth analysis, however, show that the main three arguments for Japan to seek an offensive strike capability are not justifiable in the current political and economic environments. First, developing a conventional missile strike capability is not a practical solution for Tokyo to abate the North Korean threat, and the move could be perceived by Beijing and Seoul as aiding a U.S. strategy of containment. Second, the current political restrictions on the Japanese defense budget would not practically allow the buildup of the military capability required for a conventional missile strike force, and this restriction cannot be changed without support from a military-wary public. Finally, though the U.S.-Japan alliance may be unbalanced in terms of capabilities, the U.S. should consider its broader interests in regional stability. A strike-capable Japan may not only escalate tension in an already tense relationship with China, it also could elicit a harsh response against Tokyo and Washington. This could challenge the credibility of the U.S. "nuclear umbrella," potentially leading to increased militarization throughout Asia.

policy implications

  • • If the conditions surrounding any of the three arguments examined in this article change—for example, if the actions of the U.S. discredit its reliability to protect Japan under the alliance, if Japanese public support allows an increase in the Japan Self-Defense Forces' budget, or if the U.S. can no longer maintain credible military deterrence in the East Asian region—Japan would have a strong argument to move forward with conventional missile strike capabilities.

  • • Both Tokyo and Washington should exercise discretion in their public communications of any planned alliance cooperation on Japan's move toward conventional missile strike capabilities. Hawkish suggestions of the potential to increase U.S. or Japanese dominance in the region should be avoided. [End Page 62]

Since the end of World War II, Japan has been a self-proclaimed country of peace, with a constitution renouncing belligerence and prohibiting the maintenance of "war potential."1 However, the changing East Asian security environment with the start of the Cold War and the Korean War forced Tokyo to re-evaluate its defensive capabilities. As a result, it established the Defense Agency and the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) in July 1954, and shortly thereafter, in 1956, Japanese officials began to discuss the interpretation of their constitutional ban on the "use of force" in relation to the "right to defend" against an imminent attack.

With North Korea's growing nuclear capabilities and China's increasing military assertiveness in the Asia-Pacific, Japan is again facing a rapidly changing security environment. The issue of Japan's right to defend itself has regained salience in the public discourse on security. The country instituted its first-ever National Security Council in 2012 and subsequently published its first National Security Strategy in 2013. The following year the Abe administration loosened the self-imposed "arms export ban."2 The United States has thus far supported its ally in these moves toward "normalcy," including the more recent cabinet decisions allowing for collective self-defense (CSD).

In addition to these reforms, as the North Korean and Chinese threats continue to grow, talk in Japan of acquiring conventional missile strike capabilities as a way to preemptively defend itself against an imminent attack is becoming louder. In fact, many observers expect legislation advancing this goal to be pushed forward within the next decade—a move that will influence both regional stability and perceptions of U.S. credibility in East Asia.



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