After Australia, Japan Wants Nuclear Submarines

PORT CANAVERAL, Fla. (Sept. 29, 2018) The crew of USS Indiana (SSN 789) salute after brining the ship to life during the commissioning ceremony. Indiana is the U.S. Navy's 16th Virginia-class fast-attack submarine and the third ship named for the State of Indiana. (U.S. Navy photo by Senior Chief Mass Communication Specialist Leah Stiles/Released)

TOKYO (GDC) — China is facing consecutive blows in geopolitics and military tussles- first, Australia armed itself with nuclear-powered submarines as a part of the AUKUS deal with the UK and the US. And now, an increasingly resurgent Japan is also looking to arm itself with nuclear submarines. And this is ultimately bound to corner China in its own backyard.

On Sept. 16, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia announced an enhanced trilateral security partnership called AUKUS, that will see Washington and London share sensitive nuclear-propulsion technology with Canberra to develop a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. It is a move to bolster deterrence against China’s growing maritime power.

Domestic politics

The four candidates running for the Liberal Democratic Party presidential race to succeed Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga were asked the question Sunday on Fuji TV.

Poll leader Taro Kono, minister for administrative reform and also in charge of vaccine distribution, gave a thumbs-up. “As a capability, it is very important for Japan to have nuclear submarines,” he said.

“Whether there are regions [in Japan] willing to host them as a home port, or whether the operating capabilities or costs are pragmatic, these are issues we need to consider going forward,” he added. 

Sanae Takaichi, the former internal affairs minister, also looked favorably upon the idea. “If we think of the worst-case risks in the international environment ahead, I do believe we could have [submarines] that can travel a little longer,” she said, referring to the advantage of nuclear propulsion in that they can stay submerged longer without refueling.

Japan’s Atomic Energy Basic Law stipulates that the use of nuclear power will be limited to peaceful purposes. Takaichi said there was “a need to sort things out” but added she did not believe nuclear-powered submarines to be unconstitutional. 

Japan indicating full nuclearization

Japan’s purported will to acquire nuclear submarines is an indication of some larger designs. Nuclear-powered submarines aren’t necessarily nuclear-armed though they are more efficient than conventional or diesel-electric submarines. They can stay underwater for longer duration due to nuclear propulsion, which is completely independent of air and liberates the submarine from the need to surface frequently.

However, nuclear submarines do use large amounts of power generated through a nuclear reactor and are an indication of willingness to use nuclear technology in military appliances. It is not entirely impossible that after acquiring nuclear submarine capability, Japan also thinks of acquiring nuclear weapons.

Indo-Pacific heating up

For Japan, developing offensive nuclear capabilities is not completely impossible. A Japanese nuclear programme existed in the pre-World War II era, but it got stalled and Japan’s surrender meant that the pre-War nuclear programme reached a dead end.

However, Japan is a technologically advanced nation today with adequate means to develop offensive nuclear capabilities at will. Also, Tokyo understands that the protective umbrella, which allowed it to remain a pacifist country, is no longer as strong as it used to be.

With the Biden administration going soft on China, Japan understands that the US will not push back against Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific as fiercely as it used to do during the Trump era.

With China flexing its muscles in the region, Japan has to step up to the task of containing the paper dragon. So, Japan is sending a message to China and it is nuclear- if Beijing doesn’t stop its expansionist policies, Japan won’t hesitate to exploit nuclear leverage against the Communist nation.

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