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US withdrawal from INF treaty leaves Japan in precarious diplomatic situation

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga (Mainichi/Hiroshi Maruyama)

TOKYO -- President Donald Trump's intention to pull the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia has put the Japanese government in a difficult position in international politics.

While Japan is the only country to have experienced the devastation of atomic weapons in war and has made calls for nuclear disarmament in the international community, it is also dependent on its U.S. ally for defense under the "nuclear umbrella."

"It is a shame that the United States is in a position where it must withdraw from the treaty," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a press conference on Oct. 22, emphasizing the importance of the pact. However, he avoided making any direct comment about the plan, continuing, "We hope that (the withdrawal) can be avoided."

While Suga called for the United States to reconsider, he explained, "Changes in the international security environment are crucial to the peace and stability of our country. We will carefully observe the moves of the U.S. and Russia, and would also like to hold diplomatic discussions between Japan and the U.S." A senior official from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs also weighed in, "Rather than knee-jerk opposition (to the announcement), we would like to observe how the situation develops."

"In the United States, the treaty was hailed as allowing for the 'possibility to counter Chinese and Russian missiles even under the stipulations of the treaty,'" said Masashi Murano, a researcher at the Okazaki Institute, a nonprofit organization familiar with U.S. nuclear strategies. "I can't fathom why the United States has chosen this particular time to announce its intention to withdraw."

Japan, which was blindsided by the move, is poised to wait and see how the situation unfolds for the time being. However, if U.S.-Russian relations take a heavy blow, then there is a possibility that it will also affect the ties between Tokyo and Moscow, and damage ongoing bilateral talks over the Northern Territories issue. With the rapid expansion of China's military might, there is also concern that the security situation in Northeast Asia will deteriorate as a whole.

Meanwhile, as North Korea has yet to show that it is making concrete steps toward its own denuclearization, it is difficult for Japan to criticize Washington's move to build up its nuclear arsenal for its own protection.

(Japanese original by Muneyoshi Mitsuda, Political News Department)

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