JAPAN AND THE 1982 FALKLANDS WAR I: PM SUZUKI’S 12 APRIL LETTER TO PM THATCHER

By Alex Calvo

Introduction: two letters from Japanese PM Zenko Suzuki released

The latest batch of papers released by the Margaret Thatcher Foundation includes two letters from her then Japanese counterpart, PM  Zenko Suzuki, dated 12[1] and 24[2] April 2013. They make interesting reading, illustrating the Japanese position in the conflict[3]. While hoping that diplomacy would succeed, Tokyo was firm in rejecting the invasion.

Even before the first enemy troops landed in the Falklands, Great Britain began to work on the diplomatic front in order to secure an Argentine withdrawal or, should that not take place, achieve the greatest possible degree of international support for subsequent military operations. The result was UNSC Resolution 502. At that moment, Japan was one of the members of the UN Security Council and voted in favour. Tokyo did not impose economic sanctions on Argentina, however.

Japan and the Falklands:  First in a three-part series. The texts of both letters reflect Tokyo’s official position, made more interesting by the fact that Japan at that time held a seat at the UN Security Council. We shall examine the first one today, the anniversary of the invasion, and the second one at the next instalment in this series. Since their content reflects Japan’s national interests and her legal and constitutional approach to the use of armed force, we could also ask ourselves whether 30 years later Tokyo’s position and potential actions would be the same. Some things have changed. Among them, Japan has relaxed her embargo on weapons sales and signed a defence industry cooperation agreement with Great Britain. In addition, Tokyo is re-examining whether collective defence may be compatible with her constitution, and just a few weeks ago Prime Minister Abe publicly referred to the Falklands War in a speech before the Diet. Abe said that Japan’s national interests “lie in making the seas, which are the foundation of our nation’s existence, completely open, free and peaceful” and next quoted from Baroness Thatcher’s memoirs[4], where she had written that Britain was defending the fundamental principle that “international law should prevail over the use of force”[5]. We shall examine this question in the third and last part of this series[6].

12 April letter : Invasion rejected and hopes for diplomacy. In his letter[7], PM Suzuki thanks Thatcher for her “detailed message concerning the Falklands Islands issue” and notes that he has been following the situation “with grave concern … since military action was taken by the Argentine armed forces”. This last bit is significant because it makes it clear that, for the Japanese Government, the origin of the crisis lies in the invasion, with responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the Junta. This point is reinforced by the assertion that “The Government of Japan considers that the use of force by Argentina violates the basic principles of peaceful settlement of conflicts and non-use of force of the United Nations Charter and that such action can never be accepted. We strongly hope that the withdrawal of the Argentine forces will be promptly realized and that this dispute peacefully settled through diplomatic negotiations.” Again, this is highly significant at least on two counts. First of all, because it once again makes it clear where the origin of the crisis lies, adding that an invasion “can never be accepted”. Second, because although it calls for negotiations, it does not link them to the Argentine withdrawal, which must be “promptly realized”.

Thus Japan admits that there is an underlying sovereignty dispute and calls for diplomatic negotiations, while choosing not to support either British or Argentine views on sovereignty, but at the same time not linking the two issues. That is, Tokyo does not expect the withdrawal of the invaders to be linked to, or subject to, negotiations. This is an important departure from what Buenos Aires had been expecting all along, which was to force sovereignty negotiations from a position of strength once her forces had taken the Islands. The Argentine Foreign Minister Costa Mendez said: “in the diplomatic circumstances the peaceful and bloodless occupation of the islands[8] would make the Argentine will to negotiate the solution of the underlying conflict evident. This occupation would make it possible for us to negotiate once and for all the underlying dispute. It would also induce the international community, the interested parties and even the United States of America to pay more attention to the reasons for the dispute, its character and the need for a rapid solution. The United Nations would not be able to procrastinate if faced with a military action and would have to discuss it at the highest possible levels”[9]. This Argentine goal clearly failed as concerns Japan.

Suzuki explains that these views were the “basic standpoint” which led Tokyo to “immediately” support UNSC Resolution 502 and to “clearly” explain “our position both domestically and internationally”. Furthermore, Suzuki reveals that Japan had contacted Argentina directly to explain her position “on various occasions”. The last such contact had taken place on the same day that the letter was sent, 12 April, with “the Minister for Foreign Affairs, in conformity with my wishes” telling “the Argentine Ambassador”:

1.- “We deeply regret the use of force by Argentina and urge that its forces withdraw in compliance with the Security Council Resolution”, and

2.- “The Government of Japan places high expectations on good offices by the United States and hopes that Argentina will respond positively … and will try to reach a peaceful settlement through diplomatic negotiations”

Again we can see how, while Japan supported diplomacy, she made it clear that withdrawal had to take place first. This may not have been explicitly stated, but the structure of the letter, and the fact that withdrawal was always mentioned first, left no doubt about it.

Next, the Japanese Prime Minister turns his attention to the implementation of UNSC Resolution 502 and the concrete steps demanded by his British counterpart. After noting that “The basic idea of the Japanese Government is that measures to secure the implementation of the Security Council resolution adopted on April 3 should primarily be sought within the framework of the United Nations in accordance with its Charter”, Suzuki adds that his country is “certainly prepared to make efforts for the improvement of the situation by diplomatic and other means outside the United Nations, too”. We can thus see how Japan, a country not usually noted for her diplomatic activism, seems however ready to contribute to efforts to convince Buenos Aires to withdraw before the British task force reaches the Falklands. At the same time, though, this passage seems to refer to the trade embargo sought by London, which the EEC had agreed to[10] and which the US would end up imposing once Secretary of State Haig’s “shuttle diplomacy” had failed, but which Japan was reluctant to impose.

This is furthermore doubly-qualified, with Prime Minister Suzuki cautioning that “Such efforts should be naturally exerted in such a manner as not incompatible

with the existing international obligations” and that Japan should also act bearing in mind “what we judge for ourselves to be the long term interests of the Free World”. The first of these two limits comes as no surprise, although we may speculate on its exact meaning. Is Suzuki simply referring to international law in general, to Japan’s post-war renunciation of “war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes” in Article 9 of her Constitution[11], or to bilateral legal obligations? The fact that he writes “international obligations” seems to point out at international law, but in a way the shadow of Article 9 pervades the whole text. It is also likely that Suzuki was referring to trade agreements with Argentine, which in his view may have limited the scope for sanctions. This was a bone of contention between London and Tokyo, with PM Thatcher pressing Japan to impose and publicly declare a trade embargo on Argentina[12], and the Japanese authorities reluctant to go that far[13].

We must point out, however, that the logic of Article 9 cannot be seen in isolation. Could Japan have renounced war without enjoying the armed protection of another power? It is rather doubtful. Thus, while the 1951 US-Japan Security Treaty and its 1960 successor were strongly contested by many voices who saw them as basically incompatible with Article 9, and remain to some extent controversial to this day, it is difficult to see how the latter may have survived without them. Furthermore, although never formally amended, the official interpretation of this constitutional provision has undergone repeated reinterpretations[14], and this has provided the legal and constitutional basis for what we often refer to as Japan’s “normalization as a military power”[15].

In a way the Falklands War was not a first for Japan, since the Korean War had also been fought under a UN Resolution and with full Japanese logistical support. It was thus a precedent on which Japanese leaders could draw to support the UK diplomatically without fear of contravening their own constitution. There was, however, a major difference between Korea and the Falklands: in the latter, the aggressor was also a US ally. This is what may have prompted PM Suzuki to refer to “the long term interests of the Free World”. The Junta overestimated Argentina’s worth to the US[16] and the Free World in general, and this together with their faulty view of British resolve[17] ultimately led to their miscalculation. However, although the Argentines had an inflated view of their country’s importance, it was still true that it was in everybody’s best interest to contain the fallout from the war. In this sense, the Japanese may have already been thinking of Buenos Aires’ post-war rehabilitation.

The next issue dealt with in the letter is that of the arms embargo on Argentina. At that time, Japan was following a strict policy of not exporting weapons, which Suzuki refers to, saying that his country “pursues the policy of abstaining from exporting arms to foreign countries”, adding that “This policy is being applied strictly to Argentina”.

Finally, the Japanese prime minister explains that “Bearing these considerations in mind, we stated to the Argentine side in our representations of April 12 that if the present crisis is prolonged, it is feared that the confidence of the Government and people of Japan in that country’s future might be undermined and that the smooth development of relations between the two countries might be impeded, especially in the economic field”. In the absence of military aid for Great Britain, which would have contravened the ban on collective security seen as resulting from Article 9, Tokyo may thus have been applying economic pressure, going beyond the UN embargo. The letter concludes with the “hope that for these and other reasons the Argentine side will endeavour for an early solution of the current situation” and a promise that “We shall continue to see that the Argentine side is reminded of it”.

Conclusions. Japan, a fellow maritime democracy, provided strong diplomatic support to the United Kingdom and one of the key votes at the United Nations Security Council allowing Resolution 502 to be passed. The letter we have examined highlights how, as a matter of principle, Tokyo opposed the use of force to settle international disputes and did not fall into the Argentine trap of linking a withdrawal to negotiations, as Buenos Aires sought. The Japanese not only voted against aggression in New York but also engaged diplomatically the Argentines, hoping to help convince them to withdraw their occupation forces before the Task Force came into contact with them. This was in addition to supporting US Secretary of State Haig’s “shuttle diplomacy”. However, Tokyo did not comply with British demands for a trade embargo, although some economic pressure was brought to bear.

In his 12 April letter, PM Suzuki was careful to outline some limits to what Japan may do. These came from Tokyo’s domestic legislation (first and foremost Article 9 of her Constitution), interpretation of international law and role of the UN, bilateral trade agreements with Buenos Aires, and perceived need to keep Argentina in the Free World camp. In the next instalment of this series we will examine his 24 April letter, concluding with a third part examining how Japan’s continued “normalization” and the evolving scenario in East Asia may be prompting changes in Tokyo’s position in the event of renewed hostilities in the South Atlantic.

Alex Calvo is a student at Birmingham University’s MA in British WWII Studies


[1] “Falklands: Prime Minister Suzuki of Japan letter to MT (Argentine invasion of the Falklands) [Japan applying pressure on Argentina] [released 2013]”, Churchill Archive Centre, Thatcher MSS: THCR 3/1/20 f64 (T70/82), 12 April 1982, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/5B93E112A45044FA9D022AA3368AD0EC.pdf <accessed on 1 April 2013>

[2] “Falklands: Prime Minister Suzuki of Japan message to MT (sanctions against Argentina) [Suzuki to pressure Japanese business not to “unduly take advantage” of EC and other measures to ban Argentine imports] [released 2013]”, Churchill Archive Centre, THCR 3/1/20 f111 (T85A/82), 24 April 1982, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/D7E483EAB20C4878A6D9123AE07B17D9.pdf <accessed on 1 April 2013>

[3] A third letter, dated 5 November 1982 and not discussed in this series, refers to Tokyo’s views on post-war reconciliation. “Prime Minister Suzuki of Japan message to MT (Japan will vote in favour of proposed Argentine UN Resolution on future negotiations over Falklands sovereignty) [released 2013]”, Churchill Archive Centre, THCR 3/1/26 Part 1 f34 (T210/82), 5 November 1982, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/7B9C219FF5944D869F6491EC79432175.pdf <accessed on 1 April 2013>

[4] “Japan uses Baroness Thatcher and Falkland Islands as inspiration”, Daily Telegraph, 28 February 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/southamerica/falklandislands/9899206/Japan-uses-Baroness-Thatcher-and-Falkland-Islands-as-inspiration.html

[5] “Much was at stake: what we were fighting for eight thousand miles away in the South Atlantic was not only the territory and the people of the Falklands, important though they were. We were defending our honour as a nation, and principles of fundamental importance to the whole world – above all, that aggression should never succeed and that international law should prevail over the use of force” M. Thatcher, The Downing Street Years, (London: HarperCollins, 1993), p. 173

[6] These articles are not designed to provide an in-depth comprehensive treatment of Japanese policy during the Falklands War, but rather to illustrate some of its most significant aspects. It is important to bear in mind that the two letters examined are only a sample of the diplomatic correspondence between London and Tokyo those days.

[7] “Falklands: Prime Minister Suzuki of Japan letter to MT (Argentine invasion of the Falklands) [Japan applying pressure on Argentina] [released 2013]”, Churchill Archive Centre, Thatcher MSS: THCR 3/1/20 f64 (T70/82), 12 April 1982, Margaret Thatcher Foundation, available at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/5B93E112A45044FA9D022AA3368AD0EC.pdf <accessed on 1 April 2013>

[8] “It is precisely to avoid such an scenario that Governor Sir Rex Hunt made sure the invading forces landing on South Georgia and the Falklands were met with force, so that Buenos Aires could not achieve its ideal outcome, a bloodless invasion. This would have made it much more difficult for the British Government to overcome both domestic and allied and international reluctance to the deployment of a task force. While careful to avoid prolonged combats which would have endangered both the limited forces at his disposal and the civilian population entrusted to him, Sir Rex Hunt started preparing the ground for the liberation of the Falklands right since the opening salvos of the war. He knew that if the Junta managed to grab them in a seemingly peaceful manner, it would be much more difficult for Great Britain to make her case in fora like the United Nations and before friends and allies. This was precisely the Argentine plan” A. Calvo,    “The third dimension of warfare and tactical stability in the Senkaku Islands”, Birmingham “on War”: The blog of the postgraduate students at the Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham,  09 January 2013, Birmingham University, available at http://warstudies.wordpress.com/2013/01/09/the-third-dimension-of-warfare-and-tactical-stability-in-the-senkaku-islands/

[9] Lawrence FREEDMAN and Virginia GAMBA-STONEHOUSE, Signals of War: the Falklands Conflict of 1982, (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), p. 81

[10] Although the degree to which it was implemented varied according to the member state concerned.

[11] An English-language version can be found at “The Constitution of Japan”, website of the Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet, available at http://www.kantei.go.jp/foreign/constitution_and_government_of_japan/constitution_e.html < accessed on 1 April 2013>

[12] This demand appears in earlier correspondence between the two prime ministers.

[13] This was openly admitted by the Japanese authorities themselves, as clear from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ summary of  major diplomatic efforts that year, which reads “The EC member countries prohibited the export of weapons and other munitions to Argentina and placed a total ban on imports from that country. However, Japan imposed no economic sanctions, such as an import ban on Argentina. But Japan made clear its policy of doing nothing to unduly exploit the EC’s import ban to Japan’s economic advantage. The Government of Japan thus guided the business circles to pay due attention not to unduly take advantage of the measures to ban imports from Argentina taken by the EC members and other countries for the benefit of the economic interests of Japan.” “Diplomatic Bluebook 1983. CHAPTER THREE: MAJOR DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS MADE BY JAPAN DURING 1982”, website of the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Japan, available at http://www.mofa.go.jp/policy/other/bluebook/1983/1983-3-1.htm < accessed on 1 April 2013>

[14] “The Government’s View on Article 9 of the Constitution” can be consulted in “Fundamental Concepts of National Defense: I. Constitution of Japan and Right of Self-Defense”, website of the Japanese Ministry of Defense, available at http://www.mod.go.jp/e/d_act/d_policy/dp01.html < accessed on 1 April 2013>

[15] For an in-depth view of its different aspects, see C. W. Hugues, Japan’s Remilitarisation, Adelphi Papers, Issue 403, (London: Routledge, 2009)

[16] “The Argentines saw the lifting of the Carter embargo as a victory for their hard-nosed line on Human Rights, but their obsessions led them to overrate their importance to US policy makers: not in Central America, where their role was indeed valued, but in the South Atlantic, where it was not. They based their self-delusion on the war across the South Atlantic in Angola, where some 36,000 Cuban troops, acting as proxies for the Soviet Union, maintained an avowedly Marxist-Leninist government in the face of two groups of insurgents backed respectively by South Africa and the USA. Soviet objectives were to gain preferential access to Angolan natural resources and to create a base from which their naval forces could threaten the Western jugular: the sea route for oil tankers from the Persian Gulf. The Argentines and South Africans alike convinced themselves that the USA needed their help to counter this threat, whereas the view from Washington was that their bases at the British islands of Ascension in the Atlantic and Diego García in the Indian Ocean were more than sufficient, and that the US Navy could protect the sea lanes without additional shore facilities. The Cape Route was indeed a vital US geopolitical concern, but the Argentines failed to realize that they counted for less than a couple of little British islands in the equation” H. Bicheno, Razor’s Edge. The Unofficial History of the Falklands War, (London: Phoenix, 2007), p. 77.

[17] “there can be little doubt that the Argentines would not have invaded the Falklands if Washington had warned them it would back Britain militarily. The main reason Washington did not is because, since the British had not themselves made it clear they would fight, there was no reason for the Americans to commit themselves in advance” H. Bicheno, Razor’s Edge. The Unofficial History of the Falklands War, (London: Phoenix, 2007), p. 74 and “Reagan made the US position clear to Galtieri in their private pre-invasion conversation. If the FCO/State combine had not so thoroughly muddled the waters, he would have followed this with a public declaration. What Reagan was not prepared to do was come out openly and unequivocally on the British side while there was the slightest chance they were bluffing and might cut a deal at the last minute. Thus as well as creating the preconditions for the original Argentine miscalculation, US and British diplomats ensured the matter would be settled in blood by misleading Reagan about Thatcher’s resolve” H. Bicheno, Razor’s Edge. The Unofficial History of the Falklands War, (London: Phoenix, 2007), p. 80.

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