Foreign Minister Taro Kono on Feb.18 returned from Germany, where he was visiting to attend the Munich Security Conference. He has traveled to a total of 35 countries and regions since taking office in August 2017. He is making overseas trips at an unusually fast pace. Kono is also appealing for the need to introduce a plane dedicated to the foreign minister in order to enhance mobility. He is conscious of China, whose foreign minister visits foreign countries more frequently than his Japanese counterpart.
Kono travels overseas roughly three times the pace of his predecessor, Fumio Kishida, who visited 93 countries and regions during his tenure of more than four years and seven months. That works out to Kono making an official trip overseas once a week. He also focused on countries to which Japan has paid little attention so far and visited Mozambique, Bahrain, and the Maldives as the first Japanese foreign minister. He also became the first Japanese foreign minister to visit Oman in 27 years.
In January, Kono wrote in his blog post, “Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is steadily traveling to Africa and other countries around the globe every year (several paragraphs omitted),” listing countries to which a Japanese foreign minister has never traveled before. During a luncheon hosted by Wang at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on Jan. 28, the two foreign ministers touched on Kono’s idea of purchasing a dedicated plane.
Kono: “I have to catch up with you.”
Wang: “I don’t have a dedicated plane, either.”
Kono: “How are you traveling around the world?”
Wang: “I’m risking my life to conduct diplomacy.”
Wang’s passionate remark filled the room with laughter.
In fact, Wang wrapped up his tour of Africa and South America to call for support for Premier Xi Jinping’s “One Belt, One Road” regional economic initiative immediately before the luncheon. At a meeting of leaders and cabinet ministers from more than 30 Central and South American nations held in the Chilean capital of Santiago on Jan. 22, Wang stressed, “[China] is ready to share the fruit of development with all countries.”
A source at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) points out, “Even a Japanese prime minister cannot draw this many countries to one place in Central and South America.” The source is feeling a growing sense of crisis over the status quo in which China is going on the offensive in not only Asia and Europe but also Africa and Central and South America through its “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
Regions welcome China, which is actively investing in countries into which companies around the world are reluctant to move because they are politically unstable or distancing themselves from the U.S. Africa and Central and South America are also geopolitically important. If Japan lags behind China, its efforts to get a permanent seat at the UN Security Council will be affected.
It is also a cause for concern that China is urging countries in Africa and Central and South America with diplomatic ties with Taiwan to sever relations with it. Sao Tome and Principe in West Africa and Panama broke off relations with Taiwan in December 2016 and June 2017, respectively. Japan gives consideration to the position of China, which adheres to the “one-China” principle. On the other hand, the decline in Taiwan’s influence in the international community is an issue that affects security in East Asia.
The plan to purchase a plane dedicated to the foreign minister is promising in that it may help Japan in regaining lost ground to some extent because the plane allows the foreign minister to flexibly travel to small and medium-sized countries to which only a few commercial flights are available.
For instance, the Pacific Ocean is home to six island countries out of 20 countries with diplomatic ties with Taiwan. Kono insists, “It’s hard to visit all six countries because flying on commercial routes forces me to return to the hub airport after visiting each country.” A dedicated plane can remove the burden of returning to a transit point. The U.S.’s Secretary of State, who is equivalent to foreign minister, has a dedicated plane.
At a Cabinet meeting on Jan. 30, the Japanese government adopted a position paper that says the total number of countries visited by Kishida during his tenure and Kono since taking office until Jan. 24 was 123 while Wang visited 262 countries and regions during the same period. That prompted Kono to instruct the MOFA to examine the introduction of a dedicated plane. There are also alternative plans to flexibly use a chartered plane or rent a commercial plane because purchasing a plane requires a large amount of maintenance cost.
There is another challenge in increasing the number of overseas trips by a Japanese foreign minister. A Japanese prime minister and cabinet ministers need to attend Diet sessions more often than their counterparts in other major countries. So a foreign minister’s overseas trips are restricted when the Diet is in session.
The Japanese government introduced a deputy minister system when it reorganized its ministries and agencies in 2001. Deputy Ministers were expected to play a role of answering Diet questions when cabinet ministers are overseas on business. But the system is hardly functioning because the opposition bloc demands cabinet ministers to attend Diet sessions, thinking that it can enjoy an advantage by questioning them, not deputy ministers. The World Economic Forum’s annual meeting (Davos meeting) is held every January and draws global leaders from various circles. This year, Japan did not send its prime minister or any cabinet minister for the first time since 2005 because they had to deal with the regular Diet session convened on Jan. 22.
Kono left Beijing on the night of Jan. 28 and arrived at Haneda Airport in the early hours of Jan. 29. He then attended a Lower House Budget Committee meeting, which started before 9 a.m. Diet reforms, not only a dedicated plane, are necessary to counter China’s diplomatic offensive.