Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe surprised his fellow citizens on Feb. 27.
Speaking to a television audience, he said that in light of the invasion of Ukraine, which has no nuclear weapons, Japan should discuss the idea of “sharing” nuclear weapons with allies by letting them base some of the weapons on Japanese soil.
NATO has a similar arrangement in Europe, in which the United States maintains some nuclear weapons on the territory of its allies. Abe said, “Many people in Japan probably don’t know about the system.”
During Abe’s time as prime minister up to 2020, he oversaw the rise of defense spending to record levels, called for a revision of the pacifist constitution to allow for a more robust defense of the country, and said a major conflict between China and Taiwan would be seen by Japan and the United States as an emergency, given which they could not stand by. Abe has called on the United States to unambiguously commit to the defense of Taiwan as it is only 68 miles from Japan’s westernmost inhabited territory.
Japan currently relies on American promises of a “nuclear umbrella” for its security. But as should be clear from the Ukraine situation, in which the United States and Britain guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in 1994 in exchange for the country giving up its nuclear weapons to Russia, London and Washington can respond with half-measures, depending on who is in power. Deterrence can fail against nuclear-armed adversaries who pose existential threats to all involved.
The same is true of American defense commitments to the Philippines. While the United States often claims that its alliance commitments are “rock solid,” China occupied Philippine territory on Mischief Reef since 1995, and built a major military base there. Washington has not provided Manila with the muscle or leadership, in response, to roll back Beijing’s forced acquisitions.
There is too much at stake for the United States, in blood and treasure, to lightly oppose China and Russia with direct military force. With China’s economic rise in the early 21st century, it is building a powerful military that newly challenges U.S. conventional and nuclear dominance in Asia.
So American allies on the frontlines with China and Russia must increasingly consider acquiring their own independent nuclear deterrent forces.
One first step toward an independent nuclear deterrent is “nuclear sharing” with the United States, though it could be extended to other allied nuclear powers, like France or Britain.
“In NATO, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy take part in nuclear sharing, hosting American nuclear weapons,” Abe said. “We need to understand how security is maintained around the world and not consider it taboo to have an open discussion.”
Abe continued, “We should firmly consider various options when we talk about how we can protect Japan and the lives of its people in this reality.”
Having been the target of the only two nuclear weapons used in war, which destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan has been a long-time proponent of the abolition of nuclear weapons. So Abe is not treading this path voluntarily. Russian and Chinese aggression is backing Japan against a wall—and forcing it to search for the weapons necessary for self-defense.
“It’s important to make progress toward that goal” of abolishing nuclear weapons, Abe observed, “but when it comes to how to protect the lives of Japanese citizens and the nation, I think we should conduct discussions by taking various options fully into consideration.”
Until Russia and China democratize, a nuclear free world is likely impossible. It would only advantage these two autocracies, and others with large and technically-sophisticated conventional armies.
Abe’s support for increased nuclear deterrence for Japan is absolutely necessary, most importantly because it would improve deterrence against China, which has proven itself territorially expansionist, both over Taiwan and Japan’s Senkaku Islands.
Improved nuclear deterrence would also help deter Russia, which conquered Japan’s four Kuril Islands at the end of World War II, and agreed in 1956 to return two of them. Moscow never honored its promise. Japan calls the Kurils the “Northern Territories.”
Both China and Russia frequently test Japan’s air defenses with military flights that force the Japanese to scramble fighter jets. Between July 1 and Sept. 30, 2021, Chinese military planes approached Japanese airspace 187 times, each of which required Japan to scramble its own fighter jets.
North Korea, which is a de facto ally of both China and Russia, regularly threatens Japan with nuclear weapons and missile tests, some of which flew over the entire territory of Japan, to splash down in the Pacific Ocean on the other side.
Ukraine is riveting analysts’ attention in Japan in part because Kyiv used to have nuclear weapons. The Russian invasion helps analysts realize that had Ukraine kept its strategic deterrent, it likely would not have been invaded. During a period of peace and transition, Kyiv allowed Russia, the United States, and Britain to convince it to let its nuclear deterrent slip through its fingers.
The counterfactual of it not having done so, is a stark reality that should be confronting countries in the Indo-Pacific, like Japan, Australia, Taiwan, and South Korea, as well as those in Europe, like Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania, that face powerful dictators across their borders.
Democracies on the frontline of territorially aggressive states, like Russia and China, need independent nuclear deterrents. Being a democracy, or in an alliance with a nuclear power, is demonstrably insufficient to guarantee a country’s security and territorial integrity.
Ukraine and the Philippines both show that democracies cannot solely rely on their closest allies and friends for protection. They need robust and independent conventional and nuclear military forces under their own control.
As an adversary ramps up and mobilizes its military forces, unfortunately, so must democracies to maintain deterrence. This is peace through strength. Democratic alliances are a critical link in the chain, but they are not the whole chain.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.