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Interview with FM Kono on outlook for Japan’s diplomacy in 2018

Q: Since you became foreign minister, you have gone on many overseas trips and engaged in active messaging both at home and abroad.


Foreign Minister Taro Kono: Since I took office last August, I have made 13 overseas trips, visiting 25 countries (30 countries if those visited more than once are counted). I have also visited Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Okinawa. I have traveled around the world. So far I have had over 70 foreign ministerials, both in Japan and in other countries. If multinational meetings are counted, I have participated in more than 160 meetings.


Through my meetings with the foreign ministers of other countries, I have come to have a strong sense that building personal relationships is very important in diplomacy. I will continue to make efforts to consolidate personal relationships of trust and my network of connections in order to produce results in diplomacy.


Q: How would you promote diplomacy?


Kono: The international order is in flux. Japan must not be a “follower” in the world. It must respond astutely to the drastic changes in the international community. I believe that in its efforts to contribute to world peace and prosperity Japan should serve as a “role model” for the world.


Specifically, I would like to beef up efforts in six priority areas.


First, amid Japan’s increasingly harsh security environment as the result of the North Korean issues and recent developments in the East and South China Seas, I would like to further strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance and promote the building of a network of allies and partners.


Second, I would like to strengthen cooperative relations with China, the ROK, Russia, and other neighboring countries.


Third, Japan will serve as the standard-bearer in promoting free trade and economic diplomacy amid growing protectionism in Europe and America.


Fourth, I would like to make contributions to global issues such as disarmament, nuclear nonproliferation, climate change, development, and women.


Fifth, Japan should make greater contributions to Middle East peace and stability.


Sixth, Japan should promote the strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific.


Effects of pressure on North Korea beginning to be felt


Q: North Korea is Japan’s greatest security concern. How do you see the threat posed by North Korea?


Kono: North Korea’s development of nuclear arms and missiles poses the most serious ever imminent threat to the international community and Japan. We will not bow to any form of provocation.


Through Japan-U.S. and Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation and close collaboration with China, Russia, and other concerned nations, we will make every possible effort for the international community to strengthen pressure on North Korea with the full implementation of the relevant UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions, in order to resolve the nuclear and missile issues, as well as the all-important abduction issue.


Q: The international community has continued to engage North Korea in dialogue.


Kono: Based on what happened in the past, the Japanese government thinks that it is meaningless to hold dialogue with North Korea for the sake of dialogue. In order to make North Korea change its policies, it is necessary to maximize pressure to create a situation where North Korea will seek dialogue.


Japan would like to play a positive role in the international community’s efforts to maximize pressure.


Q: Has pressure been effective?


Kono: Considering the harsh economic situation in North Korea, we believe that the sanctions imposed by the international community have been effective to a certain extent.


China accounts for 90% of trade with North Korea. Statistics show that the trade volume for January-November 2017 dropped by some 11% compared with the same period in the previous year and imports were reduced by about 32%.


Q: China’s cooperation is indispensable in dealing with North Korea.


Kono: That’s true. China is a permanent UNSC member and a member of the Six Party Talks and it accounts for 90% of trade with North Korea, so it has a very important role to play. Personally, I have confirmed repeatedly with Foreign Minister Wang Yi regarding the full implementation of UNSC resolutions.


Japan will give serious consideration to how best to maximize pressure on North Korea in order to resolve the pending issues through close cooperation with the U.S. and other concerned countries.


Q: The U.S. may adopt the military option depending on the circumstances.


Kono: First, I would like to point out that it is North Korea that is making provocations in these issues. No one in the world wants conflict.


That said, Japan has consistently supported President Donald Trump’s position of “putting all options on the table.” I will not go into the details, but we have devoted ample time to analyzing the current situation in North Korea and have reached total agreement on policy going forward at the Japan-U.S. Security Consultative Committee (the 2+2) and during President Trump’s visit to Japan.


Strong deterrence provided by the Japan-U.S. security alliance is essential for Japan’s defense and for regional peace and security. The bilateral alliance has never been stronger thanks to the passage of the security laws. There is closer cooperation between the SDF and the U.S. forces at all levels through joint exercises and other activities and the deterrence provided by the security alliance has been upgraded significantly. The government will continue to maintain a high level of vigilance with great conscientiousness under the strong Japan-U.S. alliance in order to be able to respond to all conceivable situations.


Q: What do you mean by a “solution” to the North Korea issues?


Kono: The joint statement of the Six Party Talks in 2005 reconfirmed the goal of verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. North Korea was made to commit to abandoning all its nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs. Subsequent UNSC resolutions also stipulated that North Korea must abandon all its nuclear arms and existing nuclear programs. Therefore, the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is the confirmed goal not only of the Six Party Talks members, but also of the international community.


The abduction issue is a top priority of the Abe cabinet. Our mission will not be accomplished until all abduction victims are back in the arms of their families.


North Korea will have no future unless the abduction, nuclear, and missile issues are resolved. Japan will promote Japan-U.S. and Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation and unite with the international community to maximize pressure on North Korea in order to make it change its policies.


Japan-China relations improving


Q: Since the start of the second Abe administration, the Japan-China relationship has been strained, with no summit meetings being held for a long time. However, there have been signs of improvement of ties recently. What do you think of the state of the bilateral relationship?


Kono: Last November, Prime Minister Abe took advantage of the APEC Summit and the ASEAN-related summit meetings to meet with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. During these meetings, positive discussions took place on such topics as reciprocal visits by leaders of both countries, promotion of people-to-people exchanges, and strengthening economic cooperation, signaling a new start in the process of comprehensive improvement of bilateral relations.


Q: This year marks the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the bilateral Treaty of Peace and Friendship.


Kono: At the same time, this is also a historic year that marks the 40th anniversary of China’s decision to adopt the policy of reform and opening up. During this period, broad-ranging cooperation between the two countries has also moved forward as China achieved its development. Japan has provided official development assistance (ODA) and both the government and private sector have given assistance and cooperation based on the notion of “mutually beneficial cooperation,” — that China’s steady development will also benefit Japan’s development.


Today, China is the no. 2 economic power in the world, and both countries now bear great responsibility for the peace, stability, and prosperity of the international community. It is necessary to develop a bilateral relationship of friendship and cooperation from a broad perspective based on the concept of a “mutually beneficial strategic relationship,” taking advantage of the 40th anniversary of the treaty as a perfect opportunity to improve ties. I would like to open up a new era in the bilateral relationship in which the two countries work together to make contributions in responding to global issues such as climate change and contagious diseases.


Q: What is the background of the improvement in relations?


Kono: Japan and China are destined to be neighbors. They have close economic ties and engage in close personnel and cultural exchanges. They have an inseparable relationship. Furthermore, I would like to point out that with North Korea’s nuclear arms and missiles presenting an unprecedentedly grave and imminent threat, the two countries share the common understanding that they need to cooperate even more closely to work for the common goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.


The two countries also face difficult issues precisely because they are neighbors. That is the reason the leaders and foreign ministers of both countries need to hold dialogue to deepen the relationship of mutual trust. Japan has always kept its door open for dialogue. I am gratified that recently high-level dialogues are taking place frequently.


Personally, I have known Foreign Minister Wang for many years. Since I took office, we have engaged in candid exchanges of views on three occasions, including through teleconferences.


Q: It is hoped that an exchange of visits between the leaders will take place.


Kono: Last year was the 45th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations while this year marks the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Both sides think that this is a good opportunity to firmly establish a trend of improvement in ties. Going forward, we would like to hold the Japan-China-ROK summit and welcome Premier Li at an early date and realize Prime Minister Abe’s visit to China and President Xi’s visit to Japan, in order to further develop the bilateral relationship through reciprocal visits by the leaders of both countries. I would also like to visit China at an early date in order to give momentum to the exchange of visits.


Q: On the other hand, there are pending issues between the two countries. What do you think of the state of the Senkaku Islands issue and China’s maritime advances in the South China Sea?


Kono: I would like to state upfront that Japan welcomes China’s peaceful development and constructive contributions to the region and to the international community. The leaders of Japan and the U.S. also confirmed this point during President Trump’s recent visit to Japan. The development of a stable relationship of friendship and cooperation by Japan and China is in the interest not only of both countries, but also of Asia and the world.


At the same time, we are deeply concerned by the continuing intrusions by Chinese government ships into Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkakus, which are clearly an integral part of Japanese territory both historically and under international law. Genuine improvement of bilateral ties will not be possible without stability in the East China Sea. In the process of improving bilateral ties, Japan will assert its position firmly and vigorously persuade China to respond positively for the sake of realizing a “sea of peace, cooperation, ad friendship.”


On the other hand, the defense authorities of both countries are currently engaged in negotiations for the early start of the air and sea liaison mechanism in order to prevent accidental conflicts between the two countries. Furthermore, we would like to deepen communication and cooperation in the maritime field through bilateral high-level maritime talks.


Meanwhile, China’s large-scale rapid building of strongholds and militarization in the South China Sea and its other acts of changing the status quo and heightening tension are of common concern to Japan and the international community. We welcome the dialogue between China and the ASEAN states for drawing up a code of conduct in the South China Sea, but we also believe such efforts should lead to the actual demilitarization of the South China Sea in the future.


Q: What is your thinking on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Belt and Road Initiative?


Kono: It is indeed important to respond effectively to the enormous demand for infrastructure in Asia. We hope that the AIIB will meet the standards of an international financial institution and play the role of an institution contributing to sustainable development in Asia. Japan will continue to monitor the AIIB’s operations with regard to whether it is able to maintain fair governance, the sustainability of the loan recipients’ debts, and whether consideration is given to the environmental and social impact.


As to the Belt and Road Initiative, I hope that this will contribute to regional and world peace and prosperity by fully adhering to the international community’s common thinking with regard to the openness, transparency, economic viability, and financial soundness of infrastructure projects. Japan would like to offer its cooperation from this standpoint.


Q: Let me ask you about Japan-ROK relations. Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation is vital for dealing with the North Korea issues. However, the Moon Jae-in administration seems to have differences with Japan with regard to responding to North Korea, strengthening trilateral cooperation, and implementing the bilateral agreement on the comfort women issue.


Kono: As you pointed out, Japan-ROK and Japan-U.S.-ROK cooperation are essential for dealing with the North Korea issues. During my breakfast meeting with the ROK foreign minister on Jan. 16, we reconfirmed that it is necessary to apply maximum pressure to draw a serious response and concrete actions from North Korea toward denuclearization.


So far, I have engaged Minister Kang Kyung-wha in a close exchange of views. During the breakfast meeting in Canada in January, we agreed to cooperate in managing the bilateral relationship and promoting future-oriented ties despite the difficult issues existing between the two countries.


As I stated in my news conference, the Japan-ROK agreement on the comfort women issue is an agreement between states, and this must be implemented in a responsible manner even after a change of administration. This is a universal international principle and faithful implementation of the agreement is an obligation to the international community. The Japanese government will continue to strongly demand that the ROK government implement the accord as a “final and irreversible” agreement.


What is the “strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific?


Q: What does Japan’s new foreign policy strategy, the “strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific,” announced by Prime Minister Abe in August 2016, mean?


Kono: Prime Minister Abe has long stressed the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and this took concrete shape in the new strategy. During President Trump’s visit, the two countries agreed to cooperate in promoting this strategy.


A free and open maritime order based on the rule of law is the foundation of the international community’s stability and prosperity. The Indo-Pacific region, in particular, which feeds over half of the world’s population, plays a central role in sustaining the world’s vitality. It is important to secure overall regional peace and prosperity by making it a free and open “international public property.” Specifically, we would like to promote the following: 1) propagate and establish basic values such as freedom of navigation and rule of law; 2) pursue economic prosperity by strengthening unity through such means as infrastructure building; and 3) cooperate for peace and stability, including support for maritime law enforcement capability and disaster prevention.


Q: Cooperation with India, Australia, and other countries, not to say Japan’s ally the U.S., is important for promoting this strategy.


Kono: Japan and the U.S. agreed to cooperate in promoting this strategy during President Trump’s visit to Japan. I also take all available opportunities to give detailed explanations of this strategy to other countries. The U.S., Australia, India, and many other countries agree with this strategy. I believe that based on this understanding, it is possible to cooperate with any country. We will take concrete actions while cooperating with other countries.


Q: Some say this strategy is meant to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative.


Kono: It is a complete misunderstanding to see this strategy as a means to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. It does not target any particular country and is not intended to compete with other concepts.


The maritime order is facing many threats, such as pirates, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, natural disasters, and illegal fishing. We are promoting this strategy to maintain and strengthen a free and open Indo-Pacific by removing these threats and enhancing regional solidarity through cooperation in building high-quality infrastructure, in order to make this region an international public property that will bring stability and prosperity to all nations in the region alike. We believe that it is possible to cooperate with all countries, including China.


Making presence felt in Middle East diplomacy


Q: You attach great importance to strengthening involvement in the Middle East. What is the purpose of this?


Kono: The Middle East region is Japan’s main energy source, and it is located on a major sea lane for international trade. It is also a hotbed of terrorism and violent radicalism. The stability of this region is essential for Japan’s peace and prosperity. Japan takes a neutral position in this region on religious, sectarian, and ethnic issues, and it does not have a colonial history there. It also has good relations with all nations in the region and is in a position to exchange views with the U.S. under the special alliance relationship. Taking advantage of this unique position to play a greater role in realizing peace and prosperity in the Middle East and to contribute to world peace and prosperity has great significance for Japan’s economy and security.


Q: What do you plan to do amid the chaotic political situation there?


Kono: This region is facing numerous issues, including Middle East peace, conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, and tension between the two major regional powers Iran and Qatar. In response to these issues, Japan intends to play a positive role in its own way based on the following basic policies on Middle East diplomacy that I announced during my visit to Cairo last September: 1) intellectual contribution and contribution in human resources; 2) investment in people; 3) long-term efforts; and 4) strengthening political efforts.


Q: Even before you became foreign minister, you built personal connections with Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and other key persons in the Middle East.


Kono: I visited Saudi Arabia several times before I became foreign minister. My recent visits included a trip in May 2015 as a House of Representatives member and one in July 2016 as chairman of the National Public Safety Commission. I met with senior officials there. In September 2016, I met with Crown Prince Mohammad (then deputy crown prince) at the State Guest House in my capacity as Lower House member.


Based on such contacts, the first teleconference I had after I became foreign minister was with Crown Prince Mohammad on Aug. 4, 2017. I also had an opportunity to make a courtesy call when I visited Saudi Arabia last September.


King Abdullah of Jordan was my classmate at Georgetown University, so we have been close. When I visited Jordan last September, he hosted a luncheon for me, where we renewed our old friendship and engaged in an in-depth discussion on the regional situation.


Q: In this regard, you are also very enthusiastic about exchanges with lawmakers in Middle Eastern countries.


Kono: Compared with other regions, the Middle East is one place where direct personal relationships, including relations between leaders and foreign ministers, are important for building trust. I believe that extensive people-to-people exchanges in various forms, including exchanges between parliamentarians, are important for deepening mutual understanding. I would like to make full use of my network of personal connections to promote Kono diplomacy in the Middle East.


Nuclear disarmament not taking account of security is risky


Q: In relation to nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, the United Nations adopted a Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty last July. Japan is not signing this treaty. Why is that?


Kono: As the only atomic-bombed nation in the world with first-hand experience of the inhumanity of nuclear arms, Japan has the mission to take the lead in the international community’s efforts for the eradication of nuclear weapons. At the same time, it is the government’s duty to protect the people’s lives and property in the face of the threat of nuclear arms in the real world. The process of nuclear disarmament needs to take account of both the human and security aspects.


Japan shares the treaty’s goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. However, this treaty was adopted without giving consideration to the security viewpoint in the negotiation process. It is not supported not only by the nuclear powers, but also by the nonnuclear powers facing the nuclear threat.


Furthermore, North Korea’s development of nuclear arms and ballistic missiles represents a unprecedentedly serious and imminent threat. It is difficult to deter countries threatening to use nuclear weapons, such as North Korea, with conventional weapons alone. Deterrence through nuclear arms is indispensable. In light of this harsh security environment, in reality, it is necessary to maintain the U.S.’s nuclear deterrence under the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.


Q: You are saying the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty will undermine Japan’s security.


Kono: If Japan joins the treaty, this would undermine the legitimacy of the U.S.’s nuclear deterrence. This will amount to endangering the Japanese people’s lives and property. In light of its responsibility to protect the people’s lives and property, the government needs to deal with real security threats appropriately and persist in the process of promoting nuclear disarmament realistically. Since the treaty differs from this thinking of Japan, we are unable to sign the treaty.


Q: What approach will Japan take?


Kono: Amid the harsh international security environment, differences have emerged not only between the nuclear and nonnuclear nations, but also between nonnuclear nations that are facing and not facing the threat of nuclear arms. In order to promote nuclear disarmament in a realistic manner under this situation, both the nuclear and nonnuclear powers need to be involved, the relationship of trust among various countries needs to be rebuilt, and efforts need to be made to search for common ground for countries taking different positions to unite and work together.


I think it will be of great significance and very persuasive for Japan, which has worked doggedly so far to realize a “world without nuclear weapons,” to play such a role, since it is the nation facing the nuclear threat in a harsh security environment that is most familiar with the tragic consequences of the use of nuclear weapons.


Q: What concrete contributions will Japan be able to make?


Kono: First, the resolution on eradicating nuclear arms that Japan submits to the UN General Assembly every year. Last year’s resolution aims to bridge the differences between various countries and search for common ground for all countries to unite and work together. This resolution won the broad support of the nuclear powers the U.S., the UK, and France, plus the 95 signatories of the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty, which differ from Japan’s position, and was adopted with a total of 156 votes. This was indeed encouraging.


The first meeting of the “Group of Eminent Persons for Substantive Advancement in Nuclear Disarmament” was also held in Hiroshima last Nov. 27-28. Discussions were held on promoting substantive advancement in nuclear disarmament among participants adopting different positions. Recommendations were made on how to rebuild the relationship of trust between nuclear and nonnuclear nations. We would like to present this as input to the second meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the 2020 NPT Review Conference this year.


In order to realize a “world without nuclear weapons,” Japan will persevere in its efforts, making use of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (NDPI), the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), and such other international frameworks that the nuclear powers also participate in. 


Championing free trade


Q: Eleven nations reached broad agreement on a TPP accord at the meeting in Danang last November. What do you think of its significance?


Kono: Amid rising protectionism in the world, Japan intends to promote free and fair trade and investment rules in the world from the Asia-Pacific region. The TPP and the Japan-EU economic partnership agreement (EPA) concluded last December are the results of Japan’s initiative over the years.


Japan will continue negotiations to resolve the remaining issues at an early date for the 11 nations to sign and effectuate the TPP agreement as soon as possible.


Q: Negotiations for the East Asian Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are also taking place in East Asia.


Kono: The realization of RCEP will create a broad economic sphere accounting for half of the world’s population, approximately 30% of its GDP, and around 30% of world trade, and create a gigantic global supply chain.


We would like the RCEP, which consists of nations in various stages of development, to be of the highest quality possible in order to build a free and fair trade framework in Asia-Pacific. Toward this end, Japan will promote negotiations vigorously and aim at the early conclusion of a “high quality” agreement on rules not only on market access but also on e-commerce, intellectual property, and other areas.


In any case, Japan will aim for the early signing and effectuation of the TPP and the Japan-EU EPA and continue to promote the RCEP, the Japan-China-ROK free trade agreement (FTA), and other economic cooperation agreements as the champion of free trade. (Abridged)

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