Just today, I came across a prime example of symbolic politics in international affairs, and there’s a good chance you may have, too. Different versions of this picture (HERE) were reported on widely throughout the media (including The Guardian, NYTimes, Spiegel, Focus) and the web.
The picture shows a PAC-3 missile defense system, stationed in Tokyo, Japan, to defend the capital against any North Korean missile strikes. North Korea allegedly has the capability to fire ballistic missiles at least 4000km in range, potentially up to 9000km, even though they probably still lack the miniaturization skills to arm rockets with nuclear warheads. Nevertheless, North Korea’s capabilities pose a threat not only to the entire Korean peninsula, but also to US bases in the Pacific, even to Alaska, and certainly most of Japan.
Now, as you can see on this map, Tokyo is in the lucky position to be the Japanese metropolis that is probably furthest away from North Korea. If a North Korean missile reached Tokyo, depending on its flight path it would have crossed between 200 and over a 1000 kilometers of Japanese territory and territorial seas, and alerted all US defense systems, South Korean-based anti-missile radars, Japanese home defense outside Tokyo (I am very much inclined to call that “Japanese defense proper”), and a fleet of Aegis destroyers hanging out in between. If all these fail, why would three (maybe more) Tokyo-based PAC-3s make a difference? Apart from a more technical argument that has to do with the velocity and flight path of incoming rockets, they won’t.
But that may be not what they are there for. They are a symbol, and part of a largely symbolic policy that has two sides to it. One, reassurance. Two, (anti-)deterrence.
Positioning military systems in the middle of a city may not make sense militarily, but it makes defense efforts visible to a large public, including the Japanese, and, since we have all seen the photos, also the world. It reassures important audiences of the Japanese determination and capability to defend their territory against all North Korean aggression, no matter how unlikely such aggression might be. It sends the message to both domestic and international audiences that Japan stands firm in its will to not give in to North Korean rhetoric, no matter how absurd this rhetoric has been anyway. It also reassures the US that its main partner in East Asia supports its policies and will not ‘opt out’, matching the more hardline approach of the current Japanese government.
This leads directly to (anti-)deterrence. Readying one’s defenses would theoretically serve to deter North Korea from an increasingly useless strike against any of its declared enemies. Even the traditionally pacifistic Japan, the picture seems to tell us, is now prepared to answer any aggression accordingly. The threat of a rocket strike against an urban center such as Tokyo, the message goes, is futile, so tone it down. You have everything to lose, North Korea, and nothing in your hands anymore. Quite apparently, such a message could also serve as accelerant in other audiences: hardliners in the South Korean and US military might take symbols of Japanese readiness as carte blanche to strike first against North Korea.
Ultimately, symbolic politics serve important communicative functions. A picture of a rocket system in central Tokyo thus delivers a multitude of different messages much faster and to a much broader relevant audience than any official communication channel probably could, reaching out even to an ever more isolated North Korean leadership. On a very basic level, this might even serve as an example how military assets can be used not only tactically or strategically, but also employed in a larger political endeavor.