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INTERNATIONAL > Middle East

Kono broadens presence during tour to Middle East

  • September 10, 2017
  • , Yomiuri , p. 4
  • JMH Translation

Foreign Minister Taro Kono met with Qatar Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al-Thani and Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani separately in Doha, the country’s capital, on Sept. 9 during his tour of the Middle East. Since he became foreign minister, he has been trying to “play it safe” and keep quiet about his personal views on official development assistance. But speculation is growing that he “may try to broaden his influence by taking advantage of Middle Eastern affairs, which he feels confident in handling.  

 

“Japan’s ties with the Middle East have long focused on trade, such as energy, but I would like to deepen ties in politics, culture, and sports,” he told reporters after his meeting with the Qatar leaders.

 

He urged the Qatar prime minister and foreign minister to hold dialogue and improve ties with Saudi Arabia, with which Qatar has severed its relations.

 

The situation in the Middle East is becoming complicated, as Middle Eastern states such Saudi Arabia and Egypt have been criticizing Qatar’s friendly ties with Iran. Nonetheless Kono is proactively trying to get involved in this issue because he is confident in his abilities. Before assuming his current post, he frequently visited the Middle East and built personal networks with royalty and leaders in the region. When he met the press for the first time as foreign minister, he stressed the importance of Japan’s ties with the Middle East along with the strengthening of Japan-U.S. alliance.

 

A month after assuming the post, Kono is gradually broadening his footprint. When a ballistic missile that North Korea launched passed over Hokkaido instead of targeting the vicinity of Guam as Pyongyang had warned, Kono commented that North Korea “might have flinched (in response to the U.S.).” This contrasted sharply with his predecessor Fumio Kishida, who had maintained a reserved attitude in his remarks.

 

In August when he met with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Manila, Kono discussed the North Korean issue with his counterpart without an interpreter. He developed his English proficiency by studying in the U.S. He speaks English “better than most past foreign ministers,” according to a Japan-U.S. diplomatic source.

 

Meanwhile, Kono has continued to keep his own ideas for ODA and the Japan-U.S. nuclear energy pact under wraps. He once criticized MOFA for its loose use of ODA funds, but he gave the green light for an increase in ODA money in the budgetary request for fiscal 2018.

 

Kono has been telling people close to him, “I will start to do things my own way after completing my initial tasks.”  Fears are growing within MOFA that he may “go full throttle soon.”

 

Kono’s current and past positions on key issues:

 

Past stance

After becoming foreign minister

Japan-U.S. nuclear energy pact

Demanded a drastic review of nuclear fuel cycle

Has not commented on whether to renew the pact

ODA

Said it should be cut by half or less

Approved a year-on-year increase of 12.8% in budget request for fiscal 2018

ASEAN-Japan Center

Demanded it be abolished as it has failed to produce results despite Japan’s huge financial contribution

Has not commented on whether to abolish it

Japan’s overseas missions

Led efforts to introduce a “minimum minus” diplomatic mission, which is staffed by four or less people

Will abolish the program of “minimum minus” diplomatic missions

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