Will Japan become a launching pad for US missiles?

On withdrawal of US from the landmark arms-control INF treaty earlier in August, analysts believed that the United States now hopes it can better counter its geopolitical rival China by closing what experts characterize as a yawning “missile gap” with Beijing since the 90s. With the withdrawal, America could now in theory deploy ground-based conventional intermediate-range missiles to Asia — in a similar way it stationed nuclear missiles across Western Europe to defend against Soviet nukes in the 1980s.

The US withdrawal put an end to a landmark arms control pact that has limited the development of ground-based missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers and is sparking fears of a new arms race. But the main question comes where in Asia will US be allowed to deploy these missiles to counter the emerging Sino-Russian threat?

So far no NATO member has said it would be willing to host new US intermediate range missiles. Indeed, several NATO members, including Poland, have made clear that any deployment of the missiles in Europe would have to be approved by all NATO members.

On the other hand in Asia Pacific, Australia has quickly appeared to rule out such a role, while South Korea says there are no plans to discuss any deployment of U.S. missiles there. Another option is the Philippines, though President Rodrigo Duterte, who has at times voiced virulent anti-American views, is unlikely to welcome the weapons.

The U.S. island territory of Guam, home to a sprawling military base, is another choice, but Japan — the United States’ closest Asian ally, especially under Trump — may be the best bet, according to former defense officials and other experts interviewed.

Sayers has urged policy planners to consider a new defense agenda for the U.S.-Japan alliance that aims to strengthen ties and compete with China. Outwardly, that assessment might seem to be an additional reassurance for Tokyo, which has been increasingly annoyed of the belligerence  of North Korea in missile tests flying over Japan every now and then and also increasingly wary of Beijing’s growing military might for the better part of the last two decades.

But things aren’t that simple. The post-INF missile issue is putting Japan in a bind: Either double down on closer security ties with an erratic U.S. administration or risk the possibility of being hemmed in by a China-based regional order.

In recent years, Tokyo and Beijing have been enjoying warmer ties — in large part due to China turning to Japan as it faces a tougher line on security and trade from the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump. 

So any move to introduce American longer-range missiles in Japan could stoke Beijing’s ire and put Tokyo in the crosshairs of thousands of difficult-to-defeat advanced ballistic and cruise missiles.

China has already voiced its opposition to the U.S. sending its missiles to Asia.

“China will not stand idly by and be forced to take countermeasures should the U.S. deploy intermediate-range ground-based missiles to this part of the world,” said Fu Cong, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Arms Control Department. “The US has tried to drive a wedge between [AsiaPacific countries] by promoting so-called ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’. While making military deployment and strengthening military allies in the region. It’s crystal clear who is undermining regional stability in Asia-Pacific,” said the MoFA spokesperson.

China has also warned other nations, particularly Japan, South Korea and Australia, to “exercise prudence” and not allow the U.S. to deploy the weapons on their territory, delivering a veiled threat that doing so would “not serve the national security interests of these countries.”

Indeed, when South Korea decided to install the THAAD missile-defense system in response to North Korea’s missile developments, Seoul was immediately subjected to China’s wrath, which culminated not only in a freeze on diplomatic relations, but also a nationwide boycott of South Korean goods and services. China claimed the radar used in the THAAD system would also catch Chinese missiles, turning them into a weaker military asset.

Any decision to deploy the U.S. missiles to Japanese soil could also complicate the country’s security debate. Tokyo is planning to introduce its own longer-range missiles next year at a base in Okinawa Prefecture to counter China’s maritime expansion, but acquiring the potential for offensive attack capabilities could run counter to the nation’s defense-only policy under its pacifist Constitution.

As we reported earlier, In announcing Washington’s exit from the INF, Trump pinned much of the blame on Russian violations of the pact. But a closer look shows that China’s buildup of its missile forces — which pose a grave threat to U.S. military bases in Japan and elsewhere in the region — also played a large part in the decision to abrogate the 1987 arms-control deal.

So, given the US recent irrational behavior with its allies, and unilaterally pursuing or withdrawing deals with North Korea and Iran respectively, no ally seems prepared to risk US deployment of missiles and come in direct cross-hair of China. 

Experts say that a compromise potentially would be a rotation on these ground-based capabilities in Japan — along with their rotations in other sites in the region, including Australia, Guam and even potentially the Philippines. Whatever the case, despite talk of a quick deployment, these decisions aren’t coming next week or next month but are going to take some time!

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