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When silence is deafening

Written by: (Contributed) on 1 July 2020


An official media response from a government can often be revealing about inner workings of the corridors of power; diplomatic silence, by contrast, can often be far more revealing.

Recent moves by the Japanese government to not deploy a US anti-missile system, for example, has met with blanket silence from both the Trump administration and Pentagon.

Two important factors, nevertheless, are relevant:

• the failure of the anti-missile system to operate with 'real-time intelligence';
• opposition from local residents who opposed the connivance of the Japanese government with US-led militarisation of the region.
A brief announcement from the Japanese National Security Council (NSC) that the government would not be deploying a multi-billion dollar US anti-missile system almost passed without notice in Australia and elsewhere. It was not well publicised.
The system formed part of a region wide network of US anti-missile systems aimed at maintaining traditional hegemonic positions. (1) While the systems, ostensibly, are for shooting down missiles fired by adversaries, they are also used for extensive surveillance through radar facilities which peer deep into other countries.
US diplomacy toward the Indo-Pacific region in recent years has been preoccupied with the changing balance of forces as China has continued to expand its economic relations across the wider region.  
The Japanese government first approved the Aegis Ashore anti-missile system in 2017 during the early days of the Trump administration when they were initially keen to foster stronger ties with the US. The two systems were linked to Aegis destroyers at sea and land-based Patriot missiles. The government was also 're-interpreting' Clause 9 of its pacifist constitution to enable its armed forces to play a greater role in US-led military exercises and war-games. Japan had long been restricted to self-defence, under a US security alliance fostered upon the country at the end of World War Two.
Toward the end of the Trump administration's first and possibly only term of office the Japanese government appears not so keen to follow US-led military directives and also apprehensive about other related matters. An explanation about the recent NSC decision, for example, referred to 'technical issues … mounting costs' with the initial purchase of the US anti-missile system being costed at $2.15 billion while later having escalated to at least $4 billion. (2) The Japanese economy has not performed well for decades and its rescue packages to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic have added further financial burdens.
The real issue behind the 'costly and time-consuming hardware upgrades' required by the Japanese government, however, appears to be 'real-time' intelligence' problems, where the anti-missile system identifies the trajectory of the missile to enable US military interceptor facilities either land or sea-based to shoot the missile before it reaches its target. (3)
Satellite-based transmission and reception systems are hampered by micro-second time delays which are problematic for the US military facilities; a micro-second delay makes it difficult for interceptors to deal with a missile accurately. The problem has also been exacerbated for the US with increased military expertise of both the DPRK and China and their missile development programs.
The US has also been hampered with long-time regional diplomatic problems where South Korea (ROK) has been indifferent to Pentagon planning provision for closer links with Japan; the ROK government only signed its GSOMIA intelligence-sharing agreement with Tokyo following extreme pressure from Washington, a few hours before the whole pact was due to expire. (4) 
The second factor explaining the recent decision by the Japanese government appears to be resistance and widespread opposition from local residents of Akita and Yamaguchi whose complaints were taken very seriously. They had been initially informed the anti-missile interceptors would not be placed near their residential areas.
It was, furthermore, noted that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kept a very low profile throughout the whole matter and eventually, when pressed, stated diplomatically his government was considering military alternatives to replace the Aegis Ashore anti-missile system; it is thought, however, the plan will be quietly shelved with the minimum of publicity.
And meanwhile, the response of the Trump administration and Pentagon to the whole affair has been complete diplomatic silence; there has, to date, been no official media release dealing with the matter. Nor is there likely to be one in the foreseeable future.

1.     U.S. seeks new Asia defences, The Wall Street Journal, 24-26 August 2012.
2.     Japan cancels plans, UPI., 25 June 2020.
3.     Wall Street Journal, op.cit., 24-26 August 2012.
4.     South Korean and Japan, The Defence Post, 22 November 2019.


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