Ja­pan weighs de­fense

The Day - - OPINION -

The fol­low­ing edi­to­rial ap­pears on Bloomberg View. Out­raged by Tuesday’s North Korean mis­sile test, Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe im­me­di­ately called for an emer­gency meet­ing of the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Council. Ja­pan needs to have an equally ur­gent de­bate at home.

The mis­sile, which buzzed the is­land of Hokkaido be­fore crash­ing into the sea, was es­pe­cially provoca­tive be­cause North Korea had pre­vi­ously only sent satel­lite-launch­ing rock­ets over Ja­pan. Suc­cess will likely em­bolden the North to con­duct sim­i­lar tests, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that a mis­sile could go awry or dis­in­te­grate over a Ja­panese city. Ja­pan and the U.S. would have to de­cide whether to shoot them down, in­creas­ing the risk of wider hos­til­i­ties.

Worse, it’s un­clear whether Ja­pan’s cur­rent mis­sile de­fenses are even up to that task. It cur­rently de­ploys ship-borne in­ter­cep­tors, de­signed to shoot down in­ter­me­di­ate-range bal­lis­tic mis­siles, and land-based Pa­triot bat­ter­ies, which can take out more prim­i­tive mis­siles or fall­ing debris. It’s con­sid­er­ing adding more pow­er­ful land-based in­ter­cep­tors as well, but those sys­tems would be costly and might not be able to stop a bar­rage of si­mul­ta­ne­ous launches.

Abe’s task now is to build sup­port for stronger mea­sures. For years, politi­cians and pol­icy wonks have de­bated whether Ja­pan’s paci­fist con­sti­tu­tion al­lows of­fen­sive ac­tion un­der cer­tain cir­cum­stances — say, to take out a North Korean mis­sile on the launch pad mo­ments be­fore liftoff. The con­sen­sus is that it does, un­der very lim­ited cir­cum­stances. But it would re­quire weaponry, such as Tom­a­hawk cruise mis­siles, that would dra­mat­i­cally in­crease Ja­pan’s war-mak­ing ca­pac­ity.

Abe needs to make the case for the fast devel­op­ment of such a ca­pa­bil­ity. And he needs to be clear about the cir­cum­stances un­der which Ja­pan would use it.

The prime min­is­ter needs to be sim­i­larly hon­est about his long-run­ning push to re­vise Ja­pan’s con­sti­tu­tion, in­clud­ing its clause re­nounc­ing war. He says the changes he’s propos­ing would do no more than le­git­imize Ja­pan’s ex­ist­ing Self-De­fense Forces. But his past state­ments and links to hard-right groups have raised le­git­i­mate doubts about his in­ten­tions.

China, of course, is un­likely to view any in­crease in Ja­pan’s of­fen­sive mil­i­tary ca­pa­bil­i­ties — or its mis­sile de­fenses, for that mat­ter — with equa­nim­ity. In­stead of lash­ing out, how­ever, lead­ers in Beijing might con­sider whether they’ve done ev­ery­thing that they can to mit­i­gate the North Korean threat. A more heav­ily armed Ja­pan is just one of the costs of their re­fusal to do so.

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