TOKYO -- Following a recent deal by the U.S. and the U.K. to offer Australia classified technology to build nuclear-powered submarines, should fellow Quad member Japan also seek such a capability? 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.
Former LDP policy chief Fumio Kishida, meanwhile, was less receptive to the idea. "When I think about Japan's national security arrangements, to what extent do we need it?" he asked.
Nuclear-powered submarines are faster and can travel longer compared to the diesel-electric submarines that Japan currently has. But Kishida was alluding to the fact that the Self-Defense Forces' operations are primarily in areas close to Japan.
"To maintain stealth, it will require long hours of work," he said. "We have to prioritize improving working conditions [of sailors] and secure the personnel."
Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force has struggled to hire sailors in a country whose population is declining. Submarines are especially unpopular among young recruits, partly because they are unable to use their smartphones for extended periods.
Seiko Noda, the LDP's executive acting secretary-general, said: "I have no intention to hold such a capability. I want to make clear that we are a nation with three non-nuclear principles," she said, pointing to Japan's long-held position of neither possessing nor manufacturing nuclear weapons, nor permitting their introduction into Japanese territory.
"This is not a situation where we can immediately buy and start to use the submarines," she said. "We must properly establish a national consensus."
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.