This is very interesting.

The US and South Korea, in the  42nd U.S.-RoK Security Consultative Meeting Joint Communique, have committed to …

… institutionalize an Extended Deterrence Policy Committee, which will serve as a cooperation mechanism to enhance the effectiveness of extended deterrence.

That is a very interesting recommendation.  The United States has a formal structure for consultations regarding nuclear policy within NATO — the NATO Nuclear Planning Group and its subsidiary High Level Group. No such structures exist in Asia, where consultations with Japan and South Korea — when they have happened at all — have been ad hoc.

The Obama Administration, over the course of the Nuclear Posture Review, appears to have conducted very serious consultations throughout the process at the Assistant Secretary-level and below — the same level as the NPG and HLG. Kwon Hyuk-chul in the Hankyoreh has a nice description of US-ROK consultations. (For a description of the Japanese process, see Keiko Iizuka in the Yomiuri Shimbun.  The full text is posted in the comments.)

In both cases, the Obama Administration appears serious about regularizing, formalizing, institutionalizing (pick your jargony verb) this process.  That is a good idea, but it leads to an interesting question: What the heck should these guys talk about?

In the NATO context, the existing of nuclear sharing arrangements provided a rationale for a Nuclear Planning Group — even though a state didn’t need to either possess nuclear weapons or DCA to participate in the NPG.  Still, NATO nations participate, to a degree, in operational discussions about the role of nuclear weapons.  Asia, however, has always been a different case both because South Korean and Japanese forces would not be involved in the operational use of nuclear weapons and any implication otherwise would be extraordinarily controversial.  As James Van Der Velde observed in 1988, “The Japanese approach is one of total reliance on American strategy.” (His article, in what was then the Journal of Northeast Asian Studies is still a good read.)  The same might be said for South Korea.

So, what can Washington talk about with Tokyo and Seoul, if not the operational use of nuclear weapons?  Is it even possible to have  a meaningful dialogue without nuclear sharing or some other operational entanglement?  Without nitty-gritty questions, aren’t you just really having yet another seminar on nuclear deterrence?  One answer, suggested by the National Institute for Defense Studies’s Michito Tsuruoka in a very interesting monograph for the German Marshall Fund (Why the NATO Nuclear Debate Is Relevant to Japan and Vice Versa) is that conversations about missile defenses and conventional capabilities can provide a basis for real, detailed operational discussions that place nuclear capabilities in their proper context:

In the U.S.-Japan context, as long as the dialogue is limited to nuclear issues, nothing more than a low-level one-way street of information sharing from Washington to Tokyo can be expected. Certainly, no form of risk- and responsibility sharing between the two countries can be seriously contemplated. Nevertheless, if a missile defense element or any other components of the U.S.-Japan alliance’s overall deterrence posture were brought in, Japan would perhaps play a greater role. In fact, the Japanese government’s view has always been to discuss nuclear issues in a broader setting: thus Tokyo often calls it a “deterrence dialogue” rather than nuclear consultation. At the same time, by including missile defense and other nonnuclear elements in the overall deterrence discussion, the whole picture would become more than just one of consultation, although it would still be well short of joint decision-making on nuclear weapons, unlike the NATO model of “dual-key.”

This is a clever suggestion!  Certainly more clever than, for example, keeping a bunch of antediluvian cruise missiles in storage.  And it’s doubly nice that it is a Japanese suggestion.

I think this is absolutely the right idea.  Tokyo needs an analogous structure to the Nuclear Planning Group, but one that is not focused solely on nuclear weapons.  Call it a Strategic Planning Working Group under the 2+2 process or borrow the South Korean Extended Deterrence Policy Committee.  There are plenty of real operational concerns relating to missile defenses and conventional capabilities — for example, does Japan’s constitution permit a Japanese Aegis destroyer to intercept a ballistic missile headed for the United States, rather than Japan? — that provide a practical opportunity for both parties to discuss the operational details of regional contingencies. Real planning for real contingencies does far more to demonstrate the US commitment to Japan’s security, than one more powerpoint presentation on US nuclear posture or pretending the US might ever forward-deploy nuclear weapons in Guam.  (You know the B2 bombers could strike North Korea from Missouri, right?).

And, of course, such discussions would demonstrate just how little the United States and Japan really rely on nuclear weapons for all but a tiny number of extreme scenarios. That’s a just a nice bonus, though.