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Editorial: Proposed 'counterstrike capability' risks exploding Japan's defense-only policy

The ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner Komeito have agreed that Japan should possess "counterattack capability," or the ability to strike bases in other countries to knock out missile launch sites. The government will clearly state this in three security-related documents, including the National Security Strategy to be revised this month.

    This would be a major reversal of the defense policy that Japan has maintained for more than half a century, and we are very concerned that it will lead to the warping of the country's defense-only stance grounded in its pacifist Constitution.

    The move is rooted in a sense of crisis that Japan's security could falter, as the shockwaves emanating from the Russian invasion of Ukraine continue to shake the international order.

    However, the biggest source of instability is China, which is rapidly expanding its armed forces and is expected to surpass the United States' military power in the Western Pacific by 2025. In August this year, China fired ballistic missiles in response to U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, and five of them landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) -- an unprecedented occurrence.

    -- A first strike cannot be ruled out

    North Korea is also making moves. Pyongyang has repeatedly launched ballistic missiles, and there are indications that it will soon conduct its seventh nuclear test.

    Looking at the shifting regional situation, Tokyo has concluded that it is becoming increasingly difficult to intercept North Korean missiles with Japan's missile defense systems. The government has asserted that having a counterattack capability would better deter enemies from attacking.

    Japan will use the minimum force necessary to defend the country in case of an attack and keep its stock of defense equipment to a level appropriate to that mission. This is the core principle of Japan's "defense-only" doctrine.

    In 1956, then Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama expressed the view that possessing the ability to attack an enemy base was within the scope of exclusive self-defense and did not violate the Constitution. Successive administrations, however, have made it policy not to acquire the weapons that would make such a strike possible. This was to avoid raising suspicions among fellow nations that, after World War II, Japan was once more looking to become a major military power.

    Present Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has performed a semantic switch to soften the impression that his new policy is more offensive than defensive, calling it "counterattack capability" instead of "enemy base attack capability." He has also reiterated that he will "maintain the nation's defense-only stance."

    However, being able to directly attack foreign territory would be a substantive change in Japan's exclusively defensive policy. Moreover, if Japan makes an error of judgment in exercising this capability, it could be regarded as a preemptive strike, a violation of international law.

    The Kishida administration has said that this strike capacity would only be used when another country is "preparing" to launch a missile, but has not specified the exact timing. And advances in missile technology have made it increasingly difficult to detect signs of a launch.

    The government has also said that it will formulate a "basic countermeasure policy" and obtain the Diet's approval before any counterattack. The government also must prove the legitimacy of a counterstrike to the international community.

    Targets will be limited to military assets under international law, but the government will make decisions on a case-by-case basis, so the limits on counterattacks are unclear. If the law is interpreted too broadly, they could go beyond the minimum necessary scope and lead to a retaliation chain.

    There is also concern that this could lead to a "security dilemma," or increased tensions with neighbors resulting in an endless arms race.

    -- Thorough debate in the Diet needed

    Under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, Japan has relied entirely on the U.S. to be its "spearhead" strike force, while Japan's own Self-Defense Forces has concentrated on being the "shield." This division of roles will change dramatically if Japan gains its own striking power.

    Meanwhile, the possibility that Japan will exercise the right to collective self-defense and counterattack a country attacking the United States remains on the table. Under security legislation passed during the administration of late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Tokyo can only take this step if the government decided Japan was facing an "existential crisis." But it remains unclear what specific cases, such as a Taiwan contingency, are being envisioned.

    As for weapons systems that could be repurposed for a counterstrike role, Japan already has "standoff missiles" for island defense. The government has also been rushing to conclusions, including the proposed purchase of U.S.-made Tomahawk cruise missiles.

    Radar and satellites are also needed, but the overall scale and cost-effectiveness of these systems are unclear. There are also no financial resources to cover the huge costs. With the economy in the doldrums, it is doubtful that the public will accept the burdens that are to be placed on it for the sake of increased defense spending.

    Having the ability to launch a counterattack is not enough to protect Japan. It is essential to build a comprehensive strategy that includes communication with neighboring countries, arms control efforts, and diplomacy to prevent tensions from escalating.

    This is a problem that goes to the very heart of the image of Japan as a peaceful nation that has built itself up since the end of World War II. It is unacceptable to decide without explaining it to the people. The Diet should debate the issue thoroughly.

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