For the record, Japan doesn’t have any nuclear weapons. Yet there has always been wild speculation from both ends of the Asia-Pacific over the likelihood it could use its manufacturing and technology base to assemble nuclear-armed ICBMs. This is the gist of a recent editorial published by the Chinese military’s official propaganda outlet.
Titled Capable of Possessing Nuclear Weapons Overnight, Japan’s Nuclear Issue Draws Attention Again and published on March 2, its author Wang Peng is reportedly employed in the PLA Air Force Engineering University. The near-panicked tone of Peng’s essay manages to avoid the inconvenient truth that China has four nuclear-armed neighbors. So why pick on Japan?
As the agreement allows Japan to promote the reprocessing of nuclear fuel, it is the basis for Japan’s nuclear fuel recycling policy, and the extension of the agreement has caught the world’s close attention.
Japan reportedly has a current 47 tons of plutonium, enough for about 6,000 nuclear bombs. Under such circumstances, it is an open secret that Japan has strong capability of nuclear weapon manufacturing.
Apparently, with its immense civil nuclear power infrastructure, Japan does possess a remarkable stockpile of plutonium–47 tons of it, in fact. What Wang Peng fails to explain is the same Japan-US Nuclear Cooperation Agreement he mentioned at the beginning of his essay has been in place since 1988 and was renewed this January.
The agreement governs what steps Japan can take for reprocessing its plutonium at the Rokkasho Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Facility in Aomori Prefecture. There are no contingencies in place for converting the facility into a plutonium enrichment site for warheads.
If Japan did need a nuclear deterrent to check North Korean posturing then the relocation of “borrowed” US nuclear missiles–an option discussed in Japanese media–under joint control is a better policy.
Moreover, Japan is also strong in the Research and Development (R&D) of nuclear launchers and carriers. The just-launched Epsilon solid fuel carrier rocket is a potential nuclear warhead carrier and can become an intercontinental ballistic missile with the range of 12,000 kilometers with minor modifications.
While it’s true Japan is a world leader in R&D these are for peaceful applications. It’s misleading for the author to claim there is ongoing work on “nuclear launchers and carriers.” Japan’s government is a model of transparency when it comes to the minutiae behind its different policies. One simply has to check with the Ministry of Defense (MOD) and the latest Defense Program and Budget of Japan document ( a free download).
In Fiscal Year 2018 the MOD seeks funding for three new missile systems. These are additional short-range and medium-range SAMs and a shore-based anti-ship missile. They’re all for defending a remote island from attack. There are two requests for research funding to develop a hypersonic missile with a glide warhead and an anti-ship missile with stealth features. Neither are meant to carry nukes because their deployment is for inter-island defense as well.
To insist Japan can use its space program’s “carrier rocket” as an ICBM is dubious. If Tokyo ever starts a genuine nuclear weapons program it needs new delivery systems built to the military’s requirements. It’s more practical if these are confined to low yield warheads for dozens of sea-launched cruise missiles. Or not.
For a long time, Japan’s possession of nuclear weapons has been a highly sensitive topic. If that became a reality it would have tremendous political and military impacts on the international community.
First of all, Japan’s possession of nuclear weapons would completely change its national nature.
The author then gives three reasons why Japan’s hypothetical debut among the nuclear powers is very bad news. Foremost is the vague assertion that the “national nature” of Japan is going to change. This makes sense coming from a mindset where the brutal Sino-Japanese War (1937 to 1945) is the prevailing model for how a militarized Japan will conduct itself–expansionist, ruthless, and violent.
But what goes unmentioned is the anxious peace that often follows a country’s ascent to nuclear status. China’s own experience with its domestic nuclear weapons program reflects this. After it tested its first uranium fission bomb in 1964 the People’s Republic never fought a major power in a conventional war. Even the brief conflict with Vietnam in 1979 didn’t escalate to the point of risking global conflict.
So if Japan did acquire a small stockpile of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, who can it possibly attack first? Its only potential enemies are China, North Korea, and the Russian Federation, all of whom have nukes. This scenario looks like a permanent stalemate.
In this process, the possession of nuclear weapons is an extremely important symbol or bottom line. Once the bottom line is crossed, there will be no curb on Japan’s military strength and it will get on the path of militaristic revival in the real sense.
It’s difficult to take the author’s claims seriously when he insists “there will be no curb on Japan’s military strength.” As if Tokyo’s actual hard power today can bring the world to its knees. While the Self-Defense Forces do have impressive weapon systems in their arsenal these are nowhere near sufficient to attack any country. Does Japan want to attack any country in the first place?
Bearing in mind how much the PLA modernized its different branches and grew its budget since the 1990s, it’s a bit rich claiming Japan will immediately succumb to an expansionist binge as soon as it gets nuclear weapons. A possible result in this scenario is it becomes powerful enough to halt China’s creeping dominance over the Pacific while India–a certified nuclear-armed state–does the same in Southeast Asia.
Don’t forget an “Indo-Pacific” bloc is now in place between Australia, India, Japan, and the US and its ultimate goal is to deter China’s rise as a superpower.
As a nation restricted by the post-war system, Japan’s development of nuclear weapons will doubtless alarm surrounding countries. Especially in the process of solving the protracted Korean nuclear issue, Japan’s possession of nuclear weapons is a destructive factor from every perspective.
Okay, fine. If Japan does ever get its own nuclear arsenal the rest of Asia should have reason to worry. But without overhauling its navy and adopting fifth and sixth-generation weapon systems–from unmanned stealth fighters to rail guns and robot tanks–Japan won’t be in a position to do much in its neighborhood. So with or without nukes, if Japan wants to face China on its own it might take at least several years of feverish rearmament before it’s ready. This is supposed to happen at the same time it assembles a nuclear triad on par with France at least.
But none of this is underway. While the PLA whinges about the imaginary menace posed by Japan actual events that are “a destructive factor from every perspective” are unraveling on its doorstep. Hardly three months into 2018 and two of China’s neighbors have revealed terrifying nuclear capabilities. Recall how North Korea showcased its road mobile ballistic missiles during a lavish parade on February 8, including a short-ranged model that may or may not be using a Chinese commercial truck for its transporter. Then, just a day before this op-ed was published, no less than Vladimir Putin boasted about his latest weapons of mass destruction.
It’s hypocritical for Chinese pundits to bash Japan’s non-existent capabilities when Beijing’s lax export controls means the PLA’s own dangerous missile technology is going places.
In early 2016, James M. Acton, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said at the Japan National Press Club that Japan has about 48 tons of plutonium that can be used for nuclear weapons, which largely exceeds the volume that can be used by its nuclear power plants.
Japan’s stock of plutonium may worsen the tension and the risk of nuclear terrorism in Asia, and other countries may follow suit, James said.
By the time the author concludes by namedropping Acton, who’s an authoritative voice on nuclear policy, he mistakenly cites “48 tons of plutonium,” which proves the earlier claim of 47 tons false. So what’s the correct figure, anyway?
While the insights on the “how” of Japan’s probable attempts at nuclear missiles are a fascinating read, for the PLA to endorse these views reveals a deep-seated anxiety that contrasts its newfound hubris. Wang Peng’s opinions on Japan expose a genuine fear that China’s gathering strength isn’t as impressive as it looks. If all it takes to scare Beijing is for another nuclear-armed state to emerge in East Asia, then perhaps nukes and their methods of delivery are a sound investment by anyone who’s troubled by Beijing’s regional clout.
The dim view of Japan propagated in Chinese media betrays another surprising weakness. It appears Tokyo is recognized as a rival power, one whose economy may not be as large as China’s but whose future potential is destabilizing for Beijing. How come? Japan does have a few profound advantages. Its population is wealthier than China in per capita terms. Its technological base is equal to, if not far more advanced, than China’s. Tokyo and Washington, DC will remain allies for decades to come. Unlike China, Japan doesn’t need an immense standing army and domestic security apparatus–it’s a democracy that can afford a bigger navy and air force.
Any number of reasons can be used to argue Japan is the exceptional East Asian state. If the PLA think Japan having nuclear weapons is a bigger threat than North Korea’s reckless brinkmanship, then maybe Japan can still surprise us all.