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Interview: Defense Minister Kono aims to be prime minister

  • August 13, 2020
  • , Shukan Bunshun , p. 66-70
  • JMH Translation

[Below are excerpts of an interview with Minister of Defense Taro Kono by journalist Akira Ikegami.]


Akira Ikegami: The “annual national defense white paper for 2020” grabbed a great deal of attention when it was released in July. The report discusses China’s “continued attempts to change the status quo by coercion in a relentless fashion” and calls these attempts a “grave concern.” That language made quite an impression..


Taro Kono: Last year alone, China sent a record 1,097 government vessels into the contiguous zone off the Senkaku Islands and government vessels remained there a total of 282 days, the longest-ever period.


We scrambled Air Self-Defense Force aircraft in response to a potential violation of Japan’s airspace. The number of ASDF scrambles in response to Chinese aircraft accounted for 70 percent of the total, and there was a day when ASDF jets scrambled several times.


Ikegami: China’s provocations continue this year as well. A Chinese submarine passed underwater very close to our territorial waters. As the world is working hard to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, China is engaging in intolerable activities in various parts of the world.


Kono: Over the past 30 years China has kept expanding its military power. Even if there had been no pandemic, it would probably have behaved the same. The pandemic slowed down China’s economy, but not its defense spending, which increased 6.6% on the year. It also plans to launch a new aircraft carrier and start training its crew. It has announced the creation of administrative districts in the South China Sea and enforced the national security law in Hong Kong. Its behavior is of grave concern in light of international rules.


To stop these moves and ensure stability in Asia, it becomes important to closely work with Australia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines with the Japan-U.S. alliance as an anchor. 


Ikegami: Japan’s close ties with these countries may again provoke China.


Kono: China is the one who provoked us in the first place.


China’s military expansion and the DPRK threat 


Ikegami: How about North Korea? It is not recently keeping a low profile, not openly pursuing further nuclear development further or testing long-range missiles. Yet they may be stepping up efforts to improve their land-based missile capabilities.


Kono: The country is moving in the direction of acquiring new missile technologies, such as transporter erector launchers (TEL) and solid fuel. This is a clear violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions and we must respond with tougher sanctions.


I feel recent moves by North Korea are different from what they were. One reason could be attributed to the health problems of Chairman Kim Jong Un. The other is COVID-19.


Ikegami: North Korea has been insisting that the country has not yet had a single infection.


Kono: Since their medical infrastructure is vulnerable, no one knows how much the infection has already spread in North Korea. It is also rumored that they had a poor harvest last year, and the North Korean economy remains stagnant due to sanctions. To deflect public attention from these hardships, they are taking provocative actions against the U.S. and South Korea, as exemplified by the recent explosion of an inter-Korean liaison office located in the city of Kaesong.


I think that we are at the important juncture in gauging the current situation as well as future developments concerning North Korea.


Ikegami: How about Russia?


Kono: On the economic front, Russia is undergoing difficult times as the price of oil, which it has long relied on as an engine for growth, has been falling. Yet it is still spending money on military hardware with a new focus on nuclear weapons and emerging technologies such as “hypersonic glide vehicles.” From this it can be conjectured that Moscow is finding it difficult to maintain a sizable military force that relies on conventional weapons.


Yet we must remain wary of China’s military expansion and the direct threat posed by North Korea’s missile development.


Ikegami: In June, you made a decision to cancel the plan to deploy the Aegis Ashore land-based interception system. The decision required courage as it involved the abortion of a plan that had been already decided.


Kono: I still believe that we need Aegis Ashore. To protect our territory from North Korea’s ballistic missiles, we currently deploy Aegis destroyers and the PAC-3 ground-to-air system.


But it is difficult to deploy Aegis destroyers to Japanese waters and maintain crew readiness for missile attacks around the clock seven days a week throughout the year. We also need to deploy Aegis destroyers to the East China Sea. Given that, it is more effective to deploy the Aegis system on the ground.


Ikegami: That must be the reason why the government had planned to deploy the Aegis Ashore in the Mutsumi training area in Yamaguchi Prefecture and the Araya training center in Akita Prefecture to cover from Hokkaido to Okinawa. The government explained that it cancelled the plan because the first missile booster (propulsion unit) may land outside the SDF training area.


Kono: We had initially thought the problem could be fixed by upgrading software, but it was later found that the entire missile system needs to be retrofitted for land boosters. This is like developing a new missile from scratch. The project is estimated to take 12 years and cost 200 billion yen.


But despite the investment in time and money, this would only allow us to control the boosters and would not help enhance missile capabilities. For this reason, I decided the investment does not make sense.


Ikegami: Shukan Bunshu reported that “Lockheed’s radar system is not equipped with a fire-control capability system so the Aegis Ashore was defective from the beginning.” Any comment on this?


Kono: Shukan Bunshu simply misinterpreted the facts. The radar, which is a sensor, detects a ballistic missile once it is fired, receives information on it and calculates its course based on this information. Next a missile is fired from a launch pad to shoot down the incoming missile. This is how the Aegis Ashore system works. There is no system in which the radar alone can control the fire.


Ikegami: The abortion of the Aegis Ashore deployment plan ignited debate on whether to possess the capability to counterattack enemy bases.


Kono: Aegis destroyers and the PAC-3 system remain the core elements of our missile defense system. We can maintain our readiness. But the easing of the burden on Aegis crews and the deployment of Aegis destroyers to the East China Sea need to be discussed.


As we need to respond to hypersonic glide vehicles and other emerging technologies, we also need to have discussions on future security strategies.


Ikegami: It is understandable that Japan needs to start such discussions, but Japan’s neighbors may interpret this as a message that “Japan has finally bared its fangs for attack.”


Kono: It is our neighbors who are developing missiles and deploying them one after another. They are creating the situation that presses Japan to think seriously about how to protect the lives and peace of our people.


Ikegami: The conventional view is that U.S. forces are responsible for attacking enemy bases.


Kono: That is right. But if we don’t make efforts to protect our country on our own, no one will help us.


Ikegami: Under normal circumstances, the U.S. should be the most reliable partner for Japan. But President Trump is currently preoccupied with his November election. I personally think the U.S. and Japan could work together to take action against China.


Kono: The U.S. forces in Japan, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and Japan’s SDF are working closely with each other. When China conducted a large drill in the South China Sea, U.S. forces held a joint exercise with Australia. We all share concerns about China’s moves.


In May, a “space operations unit” was newly launched within the Air Self-Defense Force. As the significance of space is growing, Japan and the U.S. commonly acknowledge the need to protect our satellites, which act as our eyes and ears in space. We are cooperating in various aspects.


The role of the U.S. bases, which we provide under the Japan-U.S. alliance, is growing increasingly bigger.


Cluster infections at U.S. bases in Okinawa


Ikegami: Former national security adviser John Bolton published a memoir. You said you might read it on Kindle. Have you read it?


Kono: I haven’t finished it yet, but I’ve read parts that look interesting.


Ikegami: Are those parts related to Japan?


Kono: I read the parts on North Korea. They described how the U.S. acted. As we did not know how the U.S. acted, I found those parts interesting.


Ikegami: The book also discussed Japan’s host-nation support for the USFJ. Mr. Bolton was told by President Trump to press Japan to pay 8 billion dollars (850 billion yen), which is about triple the current amount, when he visited Japan in July 2019.


According to the book, when Mr. Bolton reported the results of his trip to Japan to President Trump after returning to the U.S., the President told him: “We can have the upper hand in negotiations if we threaten Japan that we will withdraw all troops.” What do you think about this?


Kono: Official bilateral negotiations on this matter have not started yet. So what is said in the book can’t be true. Putting aside the truth of whether Mr. Bolton told Mr. Yachi (then the National Security Secretariat Director General), from the viewpoint of Mr. Yachi, it was the type of story that can be regarded as nonsense.


Ikegami: Cluster infections occurred inside Marine Corps Air Station Futenma and Camp Hansen. The U.S. military installations are under the jurisdiction of the Minister of Defense.


Kono: We heard that the novel coronavirus spread from infected service members who arrived from other bases. If they had practiced a 14-day self-quarantine, cluster infections could have been prevented.


From the viewpoint of the Okinawa prefectural government, its efforts to contain the virus across the prefecture may turn out to fruitless if the virus spread to local residents from the bases. We must know what steps the U.S. military is taking and at the same time must ensure the U.S. military is taking appropriate measures.


Ikegami: Have you made inquiries?


Kono: We are continually informed by the USFJ about the status of on-base infections, and local healthcare centers are also receiving information from them. But we find it necessary for healthcare service personnel in the prefecture to conduct on-site inspections.


With regards to the case involving three Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni personnel, they arrived at Haneda Airport from the U.S. and boarded a commercial flight before they received their PCR test results. This poses a grave concern because it is a clear violation of a promise that prohibits U.S. service members from taking public transportation. We’ve lodged a protest with the USFJ and called on them to prevent a similar incident from happening again.


MOD’s budget tighter than MOFA’s


Ikegami: You took up the post of defense minister after serving as foreign minister. Do you find any differences between the two ministries?


Kono: The MOD is given more money. Over 5 trillion yen is allocated per year.


Ikegami: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on the other hand, is allocated about 700 billion yen.


Kono: I was initially happy about a bigger budget, but when it comes to spending, the MOD is tighter than MOFA. Outlays are pre-determined and there is little money left to spare. When I inspected tents provided to SDF personnel on a disaster relief operation, personnel dispatched from the Ground, Maritime and Air Self-Defense Forces showed me about five different types of makeshift beds. When I asked them why there are five different types, they told me “these are our personal belongings.” It does not make sense that SDF personnel are using their personal items for official duty. I raised this issue with Finance Minister Aso and demanded more money. The MOF gave us extra money when formulating extraordinary budgets.


Ikegami: Equipment that SDF personnel use in the field is decided in advance.


Kono: Radar sites are usually located on remote islands or in the mountains. Working there is not easy. We must take these factors into account, too. But at the same time, we need to think about cutting waste.


For example, for toilet paper, the GSDF and MSDF consume different amounts per day. Why are there differences when all were the same, human beings? I asked the Toilet Association to estimate the standard daily consumption of toilet paper. Based on the association’s estimate, we changed the regulation for the purchase of toilet paper. 


Ikegami: People may perceive you as a cost cutter.


Kono: Two years ago a Diet session revealed that SDF personnel were using their pocket money to purchase toilet paper. What I am doing is ensuring that the government pays for necessary supplies. I once said that I would choose toilet paper if I have to choose between an F-35 fighter jet and toilet paper.


What I want to say here is that our budget spending is tighter than MOFA’s. But diplomacy and defense are inseparable. For me, having the opportunity to oversee both ministers has become an invaluable experience.


Ikegami: So after serving as foreign minister and defense minister, what is your next goal?


Kono: If I have a chance, I want to oversee both foreign and defense policies from the Prime Minister’s Office [Kantei].


Ikegami: You are straightforward.


Kono: My dream ever since I was first elected to office was to become prime minister. I don’t know what will happen in the future, but that remains my ambition.


Ikegami: You are so forthright. Is your next dream within reach?


Kono: I will make utmost efforts to realize it.


What would you do as prime minister?


Ikegami: Shukan Bunshu may make a headline in the next edition that “Kono aims for prime ministership.” If that happens, it will have a bigger impact. Are your sure this is ok?


Kono: This is nothing new. I’ve been saying this for many years.


Ikegami: Prime Minister Abe may feel uncomfortable about this.


Kono: I’m not saying Mr. Abe should resign. So there should be no problem on that point.


Ikegami: Is your experience of serving as foreign and defense minister enough? Do you have aspirations for other posts, such as finance minister and minister for economy, trade and industry?


Kono: If I became prime minister, the post would cover all ministers’ duties. But the prime minister alone cannot handle everything. If I became prime minister, I would like to capitalize on all the human resources within the LDP and make a team that can harness their strong points. How to make such a team will be a crucial task.


Ikegami: If you became prime minster what would you do first?


Kono: Social welfare and pension reform would be my top priority. To create a united society, I’ve been proposing for many years that we make a system in which all people can lead happy and secure lives. On energy policy, I’ve been proposing realizing non-reliance on nuclear energy.


If I have the chance, I would like to realize these proposals.


Ikegami: To become prime minister, you must win the support not only from the public but also from LDP members. On this point, some people highly praise you, while others show disapproval. What do you think?


Kono: I would like people to judge me based on who I am.


Ikegami: Do you think there are people who would support your bid for prime minister?


Kono: I will think about this when I run for the LDP presidency.


Ikegami: Can you tell us when that will happen?


Kono: God only knows.


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