Residents' fears hobble Abe's plan for US anti-missile shield in Japan suburb

The push back is the latest sign of the limits of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to balance Japan's deep-seated pacifism with renewed threats from North Korea and a demanding ally in US President Donald Trump.
The push back is the latest sign of the limits of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's efforts to balance Japan's deep-seated pacifism with renewed threats from North Korea and a demanding ally in US President Donald Trump.PHOTO: DPA

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - The sleepy north-western Japanese suburb of Araya seemed like the perfect place for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to put a United States anti-missile system. The area had reliably backed the ruling party and had first-hand experience of a North Korean rocket flying overhead.

That is, until residents began to worry that Lockheed Martin Corp's Aegis Ashore system might make their pocket of homes nestled near rice fields and the sea a prime target for Pyongyang in any conflict.

Opposition quickly rallied against the project, helping oust an upper house lawmaker from Mr Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in July and forcing the Defence Ministry to redo site surveys.

"I don't think Aegis Ashore is needed, but at least I want them not to put it right next to this residential area," said independent lawmaker Shizuka Terata, 44, who defeated the LDP incumbent in a district that had supported the party in 14 of the past 19 elections. "As the mother of a child, I hated the idea."

The push back is the latest sign of the limits of Mr Abe's efforts to balance Japan's deep-seated pacifism with renewed threats from North Korea and a demanding ally in US President Donald Trump.

The US$5 billion (S$6.9 billion) anti-missile system faces a likely delay if not a bigger rethink: the Defence Ministry's 2020 budget request includes money for purchasing the missile interceptors, but none for preparing the site.

Moving ahead with the plan would require Mr Abe to either push past or win over local opposition, with 60 per cent of Akita residents opposed to the deployment, according to a July poll by the local Sakigake Shinpo newspaper.

Another alternative is to pick another site in northern Japan, at the risk of sparking a similar reaction.

Mr Abe was counting on the Aegis Ashore system for tracking and intercepting missiles to meet two goals: protecting against North Korea and assuaging frustration over Japan's lopsided relationship with its sole ally, the US.

Since taking power in 2012, Mr Abe has bolstered military spending each year and purchased American weapons systems such as the Aegis Ashore and F-35 stealth fighter jets, which are also made by Lockheed.

Japan is the largest foreign buyer of the plane considered the most expensive US weapons system, which Tokyo likes to note when Mr Trump gripes about bilateral trade deficits. Even so, Japan's defence spending was at about 0.9 per cent of gross domestic product, lower than the 3.2 per cent in the US, World Bank data show.

 

The anti-missile system would help satisfy the US' longstanding demand for Japan to take a bigger security role, despite a promise to provide for its former foe's defence.

During a meeting of foreign and defence ministers from both countries in April, they reaffirmed their vow "to bolster capability and enhance their respective integrated defence for both air and missile threats, including through the timely and smooth deployment of Japan's Aegis Ashore".

Staying on the right side of the US has grown more urgent under Mr Trump. The US president has mused to confidants about withdrawing from a six-decade defence treaty with Japan and complained in public about the pact because it doesn't oblige Japan's military to come to America's defence.

"There's never been a president who talked publicly about dismantling the US-Japan alliance, so there's been no debate about that," said Professor Yasuhiro Takeda from the National Defence Academy of Japan in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo.

But the Aegis Ashore situation underscores the challenge in meeting those demands. Besides budget pressures and personnel shortages stemming from Japan's ageing population, Mr Abe also faces a deep-seated pacifism among a public wary of repeating the mistakes that led to World War II.

So, despite resentment over the presence of thousands of US troops and a fear of being dragged into America's conflicts, many also see efforts to build a more independent military as anathema. Mr Abe has repeatedly put off plans for a relatively small revision to the US-drafted pacifist Constitution, which would make explicit the legality of Japan's Self-Defence Forces.

Prof Takeda, who wrote a book on the theoretical cost of defending Japan without the security treaty, concluded it was unrealistic at any price. Instead, the country should seek to ease the burden on the US by bolstering its own capabilities in specific areas, including missile defence, Prof Takeda said.

The reaction in Akita shows that course is fraught with difficulty. Akita has been on the front lines of North Korea's missile threat since 1998, when the country's rudimentary Taepodong rocket flew over the prefecture, raising alarm in Japan about its secretive neighbour's arsenal.

North Korea launched two more missiles over Hokkaido to the north in 2017. The country considers Japan its mortal enemy and has hundreds of missiles that potentially can strike all parts of the country.

The Defence Ministry sought to persuade local people that the site in Akita and a second one at Hagi, in the south-western prefecture of Yamaguchi, were the only feasible options for the batteries. Defence Minister Takeshi Iwaya reiterated on Friday (Sept 6) that the two prefectures fulfilled the main criterion of providing maximum coverage.

Locals in Akita are concerned about the site's proximity to schools as well as local government offices that would be in charge of coordinating a response to any emergency.

"I think people understand the need for it," said former defence minister Itsunori Onodera. "It's about where to put it. Of course there are a lot of people who would prefer not to have it near them," he said in an interview.

Mistakes in the ministry's paperwork and an official who dozed off at an explanatory session galvanised local opposition to the deployment. Some have also expressed doubts about the system's effectiveness against a new generation of North Korean missiles that fly at a lower trajectory.

"Now there are low-flying cruise missiles and they may not be able to detect them," said Mr Masashi Sasaki, 69, a former railway employee who lives with four generations of his family on a street close to the proposed site in Akita and is campaigning against the deployment. Among his plans is a "human chain" demonstration to draw attention to the unsuitability of the site.

"We must never allow a war," Mr Sasaki said. "We mustn't allow this place to become a trigger for war. So we can't allow it to be located here. It's our duty to refuse it decisively."