This week, I joined a discussion of experts on East Asia, which included speculation on whether Japan would, in future, acquire nuclear missiles.
I said on the broadcast that it has absolutely no plans to do so. But the other radio panellists expressed the view that one day, Japan might decide to develop its own deterrent, rather than shelter under America’s so-called “nuclear umbrella.”
Tong Kim, a distinguished columnist for The Korea Times, said: “Donald Trump has made it quite clear that America will not play the role of world policeman for much longer and the US is therefore retreating from established global security arrangements.
“But ironically, Mr Trump is beefing up America’s own military capabilities and even modernising its arsenal of nuclear weapons. He is not doing so not to protect its allies or to maintain global security but in order to protect the mainland of the United States.
Dr Kim asked the question: “If Trump pursues his policy of isolation, will it make the world a safer place?”
Our discussion was broadcast live on China Radio International. Professor Wang Yiwei from Renmin University was in the studio in Beijing.
“No country can be the global policeman anymore because of a shift in power. Partly due to new technology, the world has become more horizontal, less vertical. And many people in the United States seem to think it’s unfair for them to pay for security for the rest of the world,” said Professor Wang.
For my part, I said that I saw little fundamental change in the security alliance between Japan and the United States. There are still 55,000 American troops stationed in Okinawa and Tokyo and Prime Minister Abe has enthusiastically cultivated his relationship with Mr Trump.
However, there is a financial imbalance to the arrangement. The US Defence Department puts the total cost of maintaining the US presence in Japan at $5.7 billion but the Military Times estimates that Japan’s support only amounts to $1.7 billion.
Mr Abe’s government has never challenged the value of the alliance although some Japanese people resent Mr Trump’s call to pay more.
On the nuclear issue, I said that Prime Minister Abe spoke clearly following the Pope’s recent visits to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
He told Pope Francis. “As the only country to have experienced the horror of nuclear devastation in war, Japan is a country with a mission of leading the international community’s efforts to bring about a world free of nuclear weapons.”
After the debate on Chinese radio, I did a little more research and I discovered that during his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump did suggest that South Korea and Japan should have their own nuclear weapons to defend against North Korea.
The threat from North Korea
“At some point,” he told Anderson Cooper on CNN, “we have to say, you know what, we’re better off if Japan protects itself against this maniac in North Korea, we’re better off, frankly, if South Korea is going to start to protect itself…. Wouldn’t you rather in a certain sense have Japan have nuclear weapons when North Korea has nuclear weapons?… Wouldn’t you rather have Japan, perhaps, they’re over there, they’re very close, they’re very fearful of North Korea.”
The Commander-in-Chief of the United States cannot order an independent democratic ally to arm itself with nuclear missiles – especially as that would have such enormous political and constitutional implications for Japan.
But on reflection, I wonder, given the America First approach of Mr Trump and his supporters, whether the suggestion that Japan could one day become a nuclear-armed country might not be quite such a shocking idea, after all.