Two recent developments concerning nuclear weapons highlighted Japan’s twisted position — of advocating the abolition of nuclear arms as the sole nation in history to have experienced atomic attacks while depending on the “umbrella” of the nuclear arsenals of its ally, the U.S., for its own security. Tokyo abstained from the vote at a United Nations-mandated panel last Friday that recommended to the General Assembly the launch of negotiations for an international treaty banning nuclear weapons. It has meanwhile been reported that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conveyed his objection to a nuclear weapons “no first use” policy contemplated by U.S. President Barack Obama, although Abe denies it.

Though regrettable, both Japan’s vote at the U.N. working group on nuclear disarmament in Geneva and Abe’s reported opposition to Obama’s nuclear policy review comes as little surprise. Tokyo has often deferred to the position of nuclear powers on issues of disarmament. Abe’s concern — reportedly conveyed in a recent meeting with the head of the U.S. Pacific Command — that a U.S. declaration of a no first use policy could undermine the deterrence of its nuclear arsenal against countries such as North Korea sounds consistent with Japan’s policy of relying on the U.S. nuclear umbrella for its defense.

The question is whether Japan should continue to adhere to such a position. Possible talks at the U.N. on a legal framework for banning nuclear weapons — based on the majority recommendation by the working group — could put Tokyo’s dilemma over nuclear disarmament in focus. Obama’s nuclear policy review may hit a snag due to objections from inside his administration and key U.S. allies, but should Japan be among the parties to oppose a policy that could significantly reduce the security role of nuclear weapons? These developments should give the nation a chance to publicly discuss and rethink its twisted reliance on nuclear weapons.

The majority vote at the U.N. working group that adopted a report urging the General Assembly to begin talks on a treaty banning nuclear weapons reflected the split between the non-nuclear countries calling for the prohibition of such weapons on one hand, and nuclear powers — which have boycotted the working group discussions since February — and countries that rely on the nuclear umbrella of their allies, such as Japan and NATO members. The U.S. allies reportedly opposed such talks, insisting that nuclear disarmament should only proceed in tandem with security considerations and calling for an “incremental” approach to phasing out nuclear arsenals. The panel members voted 68 to 22 to adopt the report, with Japan among the 13 that abstained from the vote.

Japan’s representative at the U.N. panel discussions reportedly deplored that participants did not spend enough time to reach a consensus, and expressed concern that the panel’s decision “will further divide the international disarmament community and undermine the momentum of nuclear disarmament for the international community as a whole.” But while Japan has vowed to bridge the divide between nuclear powers and non-nuclear countries, its abstention on the vote signifies the nation’s dilemma and inaction over the issue.

Unlike the Security Council, where the nuclear powers hold veto rights as permanent members, the General Assembly proceeds on a majority rule among its members. If a resolution calling for a treaty prohibiting the use, deployment, production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons is submitted on the basis of the working group report, it can be adopted, setting the stage for possible talks on such a treaty. How such a process will evolve without the involvement of the nuclear powers remains unclear.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s review of the U.S. nuclear weapons policy has reportedly been in the works for several months. Little action followed the president’s famed 2009 speech in Prague calling for “a world free of nuclear weapons.” In his final year in office, Obama is said to have been weighing several options to advance his vision, including a declaration that the U.S. will not use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, as well as cuts to the budget for modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal and submitting to the U.N. Security Council a resolution banning nuclear weapons tests. The no first use policy, if adopted, will represent a landmark change in the U.S. nuclear posture that could lead to reducing the role of nuclear weapons — a condition that will contribute to creating the nuclear-weapons-free world that Obama advocated.

According to a recent Washington Post column that broke the story of Abe expressing his opposition, Japan joins other U.S. allies such as South Korea, France and Britain in communicating their concern about the possible declaration of such a policy by Obama. Along with the opposition of key members of his administration, the caution expressed by the allies are making the chances of the policy being endorsed slim, said the column. Abe has denied that the issue was discussed when he met recently with the U.S. commander in Tokyo. Speaking to reporters on Saturday, he said he believed the U.S. has made no decision on the nuclear policy review and that he would stay in close contact with Washington on the matter.

The security implications of a U.S. no first use policy may be subject to discussions. The U.S. allies are reported to have opposed because such a declaration by the U.S. could increase the risk of conventional warfare and that there would be no guarantee that other nuclear powers would follow the unilateral U.S. declaration and make it an international norm. Proponents of the no first use policy highlight the risks associated with the possibility of pre-emptive nuclear strikes, which it should remove. A group of former government officials in Asia-Pacific countries, including former Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi and her Australian counterpart Gareth Evans, issued a joint statement this month urging the Obama administration to adopt the no first use policy and calling on American allies in the region to support it. A no first use policy, they said, will facilitate changing the current “highly risky” policy on the operation of nuclear arsenals and, if adopted by all nuclear powers, will strengthen strategic stability and contribute to a norm that discourages the use of nuclear weapons.

In May, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president in history to visit the atomic-bombed city of Hiroshima, where he reiterated his resolve to seek a world free of nuclear weapons. Abe, who accompanied Obama in the visit, said he is determined to make efforts to ensure steady progress toward the goal of a nuclear-free world. The prime minister should show that Japan is indeed serious about pursuing that goal.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this editorial. The original can be found here.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole