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INTERNATIONAL > East Asia & Pacific

Former diplomat on North Korea crisis, relations with China, U.S., more

Interview with Hitoshi Tanaka, chairman of the Institute for International Strategy of the Japan Research Institute and former deputy foreign minister, by Atsuro Kurashige, Mainichi Shimbun special senior writer


Q: Has China changed its attitude [toward North Korea]?


Tanaka: The Chinese media reported that five refugee camps will be built in the Korean Autonomous Prefecture near China’s border with North Korea. This is a very strong message to the DPRK, meaning while China used to be averse to the influx of refugees, it is now prepared to accept them. So far, North Korea has taken advantage of China’s fear of the collapse of its regime, but what would it do if China comes to say “it doesn’t matter”?


Q: Why has China changed?


Tanaka: The DPRK’s possession of nuclear arms will also have a tremendous impact on China’s security. It has the problem of administering the 1.8 million Korean minority living near the border, and it has to think about the possibility of the DPRK’s possession of nuclear weapons triggering a chain reaction in the ROK, Taiwan, and Japan. It has probably moved from the wait-and-see phase to a point where it has to stop North Korea.


Q: This is a significant change.


Tanaka: The effects of the sanctions will be felt this winter. If North Korea conducts another nuclear or missile test, there will be even tougher sanctions and the supply of oil will stop completely. The U.S. will also apply stronger military pressure.


There is a dilemma with regard to military pressure. While this is necessary to force North Korea to come to the negotiating table, there is also the possibility of the momentum of military pressure making actual military action inevitable.


However, there is now room to develop a common scenario with China for a peaceful solution to the North Korea issue. The U.S., China, Japan, and the ROK should not be talking about pressure separately, but should work closely together to draw up an exit strategy.


Q: How about talks between the U.S. and China?


Tanaka: I think these two countries are probably already talking about contingency planning, such as who should take control of the nuclear substances if the North Korean regime collapses and how. If talks are taking place between the U.S. and China, there is no reason why Japan, the U.S., China, and the ROK cannot talk about crisis scenarios, including the refugee issue and the evacuation of Japanese nationals.


The most important issue in the first half of this year will be Japan’s taking the initiative to call on the three countries to hold four-nation talks. I call this “P3C.” P or pressure alone will not solve the problem. The three Cs are necessary. The first C is coordination, i.e. developing crisis management plans and an exit strategy by the four nations. The second C is contingency planning as stated earlier, and the third C is communication channels.


Now that China has finally changed its policy, it is meaningless to just criticize China and blame it for not doing what needs to be done. What is necessary is for all four countries to work together to resolve the Korean Peninsula issue, which is of critical importance to Japan. The military option is the one thing Japan must avoid by all means.


Q: Does Japan have channels of communication?


Tanaka: The Japanese Foreign Ministry has made extraordinary efforts to keep those channels open. North Korea is a very dangerous country and it would be a disaster if it takes actions due to misunderstanding. Therefore, it is necessary to maintain channels to convey Japan’s intentions. I don’t think such channels exist right now.


Q: In a sense, North Korea is a short-term issue. You have been saying how Japan deals with China’s rise is the most important issue for Japan’s diplomacy in this century.


Tanaka: China’s foreign policy is of great interest to Japan. President Xi Jinping’s statements at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China have given rise to concerns that China might adopt more aggressive maritime policies.


However, what is important in foreign policy is Japan’s own vision and position. Foreign policy and domestic politics are inseparable. The most important thing is whether Japan will be able to establish a system for regional coexistence and co-prosperity despite the trend of low birth rate and aging of the population at home. The role of diplomacy is to work on this from today.


How should Japan look at China in this context? Amid increasing interdependence, Japan will have to leverage China’s enormous market for its economic growth. Japan needs to work for the early conclusion of the East Asian Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the effectuation of the TPP and for building a mechanism for mutual interaction between these two frameworks, which will make China’s involvement in economic cooperation possible. Japan should champion this cause. Things will move from there.


Q: However, the Abe administration is fond of counteracting China. Japan took the lead in taking up the Indo-Pacific strategy, which is a concept for the encirclement of China, at the recent Japan-U.S. summit.


Tanaka: The fact is this is perceived as a concept to counteract the Belt and Road Initiative. I doubt if it is in Japan’s interest to come up with abstract concepts to alarm other countries. Japan needs to be more realistic.


Japan’s own position is also important in its relations with the U.S. The most important thing is to have the U.S. exercise healthy leadership. Japan should speak out on Asian affairs. It is not enough to put pressure on China, criticize the ROK, and say that applying pressure is best for North Korea. What is important is to build regional peace and realize a region of coexistence and co-prosperity for Japan. In that sense, it should explain mutual interaction between the RCEP and TPP to the U.S. and urge it to participate.


Q: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship and reciprocal visits by the leaders are being planned.


Tanaka: I think it would be good to draw up a fifth political document on bilateral relations. The basic concept in this document on the future relationship should be economic development for both sides.


One issue that Japan needs to pay attention to is that the revision of Article 9 of the constitution may give rise to suspicions in the neighboring countries. The Self-Defense Forces is not unconstitutional under Article 9 and constitutional interpretation has been broadened to include limited exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Pacifism based on Article 9 is Japan’s basic national policy and this has been useful in the conduct of diplomacy. Why is Article 9 being changed? Unless Japan is able to give a convincing explanation, all its diplomatic efforts so far will be cancelled out.


A lot of things have happened since the beginning of 2018. The important thing is not to be affected by individual events and approach these issues based on a grand mid- and long-term strategy for building regional peace. (Abridged)

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