Articles - June 2017


By James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Japan's Deputy Director-General for Press and Public Policy speaks with Diplomatic Connections' James A. Winship, Ph.D.

Japan has been in a long term economic slowdown and its population is aging, but it is still the world’s third largest economy after the United States and China. While Japan runs a substantial and controversial trade surplus; at the same time, it's a major international trading partner and the closest ally of the United States in East Asia. Though the U.S. is committed to its defense, the question of Japan's role in its own defense remains an emotional challenge.

Following World War II and the occupation of Japan by the United States, Japan’s new constitution included very specific provisions intended to commit the country to “an international peace based on justice and order” and renouncing any right of belligerency. Article 9 of
the constitution states that, “"The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes."”

The questions facing Japan are manifold. How does Japan go about the business of strengthening and staffing its economy? How does it continue and even expand its international role without creating resistance from neighboring nations and triggering the emotional resentments created by the expansionist polices of Imperial Japan during World War II? How does Japan’s export oriented economy deal with the world’s other major economies in the United States, the Eurozone and in Asia? How does Japan respond to the rising security challenges posed by North Korea and China in Asia and beyond?

In the interim, President Trump has raised pointed questions regarding trade imbalances between our two nations, alleged currency manipulations, and American job losses due to foreign trade practices. Trump also raised questions during his presidential campaign about the defense guarantees provided to Japan by the United States and charged that Japan was “free riding” on the American commitment by not sufficiently contributing to the cost of its defense.

One of President Trump’s first diplomatic encounters, just a month after his Inauguration, was with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago golf
resort and estate in Florida. Despite what seemed to be potentially tense relations between the leaders, that meeting seemed to go well and laid the groundwork for a positive reset of bilateral relations.

During a visit to Japan, Diplomatic Connections correspondent James Winship was granted the privilege of an extended conversation with Mr. Masato OHTAKA, Deputy Press Secretary and Deputy Director-General for Press and Public Policy at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. His previous assignment was as head of the press section at the Japanese Embassy in Washington, D.C., a position that allowed him to study American politics alongside Japanese policy. Their conversation was wide ranging and offers
key insights into 21st century Japan’s evolving foreign policy views.

Diplomatic Connections: Overall, how would the Foreign Ministry characterize Japan’s international role as we enter the third decade of the 21st century?

Mr. OHTAKA: Japan is still one of the great economic powers of the world, and we continue to play a leadership role on international issues, particularly on such issues as global warming and human rights and many other important issues, including nuclear non-proliferation. We can and do play a significant role.  Japan and the United States are committed to shared ideals, including human rights, democracy and free trade.

The stability of the Asian region as well as the Asia Pacific really depends on how Japan and the United States can work together as allies. This is the cornerstone of Japanese diplomacy, and it is the critical relationship for regional security as well.

Diplomatic Connections: It seemed to underscore that relationship when Prime Minister Abe was among the very first foreign leaders to meet President Trump after his Inauguration. How would you characterize the tone, the content and, especially, the outcome of that meeting between Prime Minister Abe and President Trump?

Mr. OHTAKA: A very good beginning has been established.  We were able to strongly reaffirm our bilateral relationship and reassert the fact that we share the same values. We are on the right path to building an even stronger relationship and to rethinking the shape of the U.S.-Japan alliance for the new situations that we face in Asia.

Discussing things in greater detail is a priority. The United States needs time to settle the new administration into its many roles, and we need to get the people in place who will do the day-to-day heavy lifting that deals with concerns from both sides of the bilateral relationship.

As yet, for example, we do not have a new U.S. Ambassador to Japan. [President Trump has named Tennessee businessman William Haggerty to be his Ambassador to Japan, but at the time of this interview, he had not yet received final Senate confirmation.]

The groundwork has already been prepared for the two sides to engage in good, productive discussions across a wide range of bilateral issues. There are, for instance, many things that Japan and the United States can do to make the East Asian regional economy work better, and to make the world economy work better.

Diplomatic Connections: Certainly during the 2016 presidential campaign in the United States there were some “bumps in the road” with the U.S.-Japanese relationship. Those concerns do seem to be changing but there were some strong positions taken. Has Japan been asked to take on any new commitments toward providing its own defense or to provide additional financial support to the U.S. forces that are here in Japan?

Mr. OHTAKA: Several meetings as well as telephone conversations between the two top leaders have taken place, and we have had some high-level ministerial meetings between the two sides as well. I am not in a position to give details on what we talked about. But, I can tell you that the U.S. government shares the understanding that Japan is making sufficient contribution to the cost of its defense based on the conversations we have had regarding cost sharing and the requirements of U.S. bases in Japan.

Diplomatic Connections: At one point during the campaign, then candidate now President Trump actually suggested that perhaps Japan should be encouraged to develop its own nuclear deterrent forces. Are there any circumstances under which Japan would consider developing nuclear weapons of its own?

Mr. OHTAKA: Japan has a very long and unfortunate history with nuclear weapons. We are the only country in the world against which nuclear weapons have actually been used and know full well their horrific destructive power. We think of ourselves as a conduit for the world to actually understand the realities of what can happen when such weapons are used.

Among our people, in terms of public opinion and under the anti-nuclear provisions of our constitution, it would not be politically possible to become a nuclear weapons state ourselves. And, based on that, Japan is a very committed non-nuclear country under the NPT – Non-Proliferation Treaty system. It is simply impossible for us to think of Japan becoming a nuclear weapons state.

Diplomatic Connections: An early Executive Order issued by President Trump effectively terminated any further negotiations on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral trade agreement that would have included Japan as a major partner. Trade has been so much at the heart of the relationship between the United States and Japan, how would Japan like to see this long standing relationship unfold in light of the demise of TPP?

Mr. OHTAKA: Characterizing the current situation as the “demise” of TPP is overstating the case. Japan has not totally given up on TPP. The United States and Japan have agreed that there will be continuing bilateral economic dialogues between us on a regular basis. That framework was agreed upon between Vice President Pence and Deputy Prime Minister Aso, who also serves as Minister of Finance and Financial Services.

Diplomatic Connections: Will Japan seek to revive TPP negotiations with or without the United States? Or, will Japan pursue a new bilateral trade agreement with the United States?

Mr. OHTAKA: The proposed TPP is an advanced type of trade agreement that is not only about trade but is also about rule making. The text includes chapters on investment, on intellectual property, on the environment, on labor practices and protections and even chapters dealing with state-owned enterprises as well. These topics are fundamentally important for the future of the economic framework in the Asia-Pacific Region.

Getting the rules right between Japan and the United States is one of the great values of TPP. Our government has not yet had enough opportunity to exchange views on these sorts of issues in detail with the United States. Over time this is the core value that we see in the TPP Agreement, and we look forward to renewed negotiations that will enhance a rules based trading regime designed to promote free and fair trade.

Diplomatic Connections: Does Japan seek, especially under Prime Minister Abe, to play a greater regional role in security and trade issues in East Asia? Given suspicions of Japanese motives by other countries in the region, based largely on the history of World War II, can and should Japan play a greater regional role?

Mr. OHTAKA: Japan often talks about “proactive pacifism” as a description of the foreign and defense policies in which our country is engaged.  Just a few years ago our government reinterpreted the Article 9 provisions of the Japanese constitution which limit the operations of our Self-Defense Forces. Legislative action was taken by the Diet to put in place a new law that more clearly defines the operational role of the SDF. This will enable Japan to be a bit more proactive on international peacekeeping and in our collaboration with the United States military. But, this is still in the context of “proactive pacifism” and what is an exclusively defensive national security posture.

Diplomatic Connections: South Korea recently elected a new president, Moon Jae-in, who seems much more open to talking with North Korea and trying to ease tensions between the two Koreas than was his predecessor. How will this affect Japan’s policy toward South Korea? What could Japan do to strengthen relations with South Korea, especially given the long history of tensions between the two countries?

Mr. OHTAKA: You are certainly right that there is emotional baggage between Japan and Korea that often makes bilateral diplomacy, whether over economic or security issues or political questions, more difficult and burdened by the past.

But, looking at the current and future security situation in Asia, things are getting more complex as well as challenging. There is a strong awareness among all the countries of the region, including South Korea, that governments need to step-up their efforts to make sure that the security situation does not get out of control.

Diplomatic Connections: As Americans like to say, the “elephant in the room” is North Korea, meaning the KIM Jung-un regime and that country’s aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons and the missile technology needed to deploy them militarily. Diplomacy has been tried and has met with only short-lived successes and repeated defiance.

Is there reason to hope that renewed negotiations could be more effective in restraining North Korea than they have been in the past? Could economic sanctions work if they were tightened and universally observed? Is there any circumstance under which Japan would support the use of military force against North Korea?

Mr. OHTAKA: The Trump administration and the United States have clearly expressed their position that “everything is on the table.” Japan appreciates that stance and believes this statement will put added pressure on the North Koreans. Without pressure it would be difficult to bring North Korea to the negotiating table in a productive manner. Looking at the history of how things have turned out between North Korea and the international community since the early 1990s, there is very little reason for Japan and the United States to believe in any agreements or statements North Korea makes.  Any dialogue with North Korea must begin with the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Without that commitment, any negotiation could turn out to be a dialogue purely for the sake of dialogue. Japan no longer wants that.

Diplomatic Connections: Japan is much closer to North Korea than the West Coast of the United States and therefore your physical security is much more immediately threatened. Could you assess how Japan perceives the threat posed by
North Korea?

Mr. OHTAKA: In 2016, the North Koreans detonated two nuclear devices and conducted thirty tests of advanced missile designs. Earlier launches landed in the Sea of Japan, but the most recent tests splashed down inside Japan's 200 n.m. EEZ-Exclusive Economic Zone. North Korea now has a range of offensive weapons and, by staging multiple, simultaneous launches, appears to be testing Japan's missile defense capabilities.

Any place around the world could soon be within the reach of North Korean nuclear weapons. With all of this in mind, we have to be very concerned about delay. The more time the international community gives the North Koreans, the worse the results will be for the rest of the world.

Diplomatic Connections: We have seen the United States, with the agreement of the previous South Korean government, install a THAAD missile defense battery in South Korea. It remains to be seen how the new South Korean government deals with the presence of the THAAD system. Currently, missile defense for Japan is based on the capabilities of the U.S. Navy’s and the Japanese Naval Self-Defense Forces Aegis destroyers based out of Japan. Would Japan consider installing a missile defense system on its territory?

Mr. OHTAKA: Currently, we do believe that Japan in collaboration with the United States, has defenses sufficient to protect our territory. Still, it is necessary to constantly update our awareness and upgrade our capabilities. The government anticipates that Japan will achieve a four-tier interceptor defense system that will be capable of meeting threats from North Korea or other aggressors. No system of missile defense offers absolute protection, however.

Diplomatic Connections: As North Korea’s closest ally and critical economic partner, what can or should be China’s role in halting that country’s nuclear and missile development programs and taming its militaristic rhetoric.

Mr. OHTAKA: There are already sanctions in place against North Korea under the terms of a United Nations Security Council resolution, but its provisions must be fully implemented by all countries.

China is in the best position to actually have some impact on the North Korean economy. The Chinese have recently suspended their import of coal from North Korea. This will have some impact, but it is uncertain whether suspending these shipments will be painful enough to cause the North Korean regime to rethink their policies.

China’s wisdom and its diplomatic leverage are required to focus North Korea’s attention and to assure that country’s compliance with the United Nations demands that it halt its nuclear and missile development programs.

Diplomatic Connections: While we are talking about China we need to talk about the East and South China Seas issues. It is the East China Sea that most directly involves Japan, but the South China Sea issue is similar and very directly impacts Japan in terms of basic principles like access to shipping lanes and passage through narrow straits, fisheries and mineral exploration as well as the militarization of small islands and islets within those seas.

China has enlarged and fortified several of these islands and is in the process of basing military forces, including building port facilities and air fields with extended runways, on them. How does Japan see this question of access to the East and South China Seas impacted by China’s efforts to expand its air defense area and to make very sweeping territorial waters claims?

Mr. OHTAKA: Japan takes the rule of law very, very seriously. To this end, the countries that are affected in the East China Sea and the South China Sea need to cooperate with each other. These states have many things in common, and diplomatic efforts must be made to identify shared concerns and shape coordinated responses. It is always more effective to work together rather than acting individually.

Diplomatic Connections: Let us ask one final and totally different question. From a foreign policy point of view what is the importance of the 2020 Summer Olympics scheduled to be held in Tokyo, Japan?

Mr. OHTAKA: These Olympics represent an enormous opportunity for Japan because they bring worldwide attention to the host country. The 1964 Games put Japan on the map as an economic giant with a strong industrial and technological base. Our bullet trains and Tokyo’s multi-tiered highway system were developed as part of the infrastructure for those Games, and they became hallmarks of Japan’s modernization. That same spirit of innovation is evident in preparations for the upcoming Olympics.

The Paralympics were held for the first time in coordination with the 1964 Tokyo Games, and they quickly became an integral part of the Olympic tradition. Japan is very proud of being the first venue to host both the Olympics and the Paralympics, and in 2020 that will certainly be true again.

Diplomatic Connections: Mr. OHTAKA, thank you very much for affording us this unusual opportunity to speak directly with a representative of the Foreign Ministry. We deeply appreciate your evaluation of the on-going relationship between Japan and the United States as well as the rapidly unfolding security situation in East Asia.

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