FRANCESCA REGALADO, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO — Less than two weeks before the U.S. presidential election, Japanese reform minister Taro Kono on Friday again criticized China’s military expansion and reiterated his pitch for Japan’s accession to the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.
Kono was the foreign minister and then the minister of defense during the final three years of Shinzo Abe’s prime ministership.
“Japan is not an Anglo-Saxon country,” the political heavyweight said, “but it shares values with these five countries, which is why I would like to collaborate with Five Eyes to eventually make it Six Eyes.”
Tokyo shares raw intelligence bilaterally with each of the eyes — the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada and New Zealand — but Japan’s shaky counterintelligence abilities have precluded formal membership in the alliance.
Speaking at the 17th CSIS/Nikkei symposium, hosted by Nikkei and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank, Kono suggested that the great power competition between the U.S. and China will not change regardless of the Nov. 3 election’s outcome.
In prerecorded remarks, Kono described a shift in U.S. priorities, from the war against terrorism to competition with China.
“The United States has entered an era of long-term strategic competition with revisionist nations, including China,” he said. “The strategy has changed radically from the fight against terrorism.”
Despite the change in his cabinet portfolio, Kono’s tone on China did not change from speeches made while at the helm of the foreign and defense ministries. Kono once more pointed to China’s increasingly aggressive actions in territorial rows, including one involving Japan’s Senkaku Islands, Okinawa Prefecture, those with other nations in the South China Sea and with India in the Himalayas.
Kono additionally criticized China’s provocative actions as its neighbors grappled with the coronavirus pandemic on one hand and its “mask diplomacy” to quiet dissent on the other.
“They are trying to further strengthen their influence against the background of this coronavirus infection,” Kono said. “In many countries, there are not enough masks and medicines, and China is developing mask diplomacy to launch what is called the ‘Health Silk Road’ as part of the Belt and Road Initiative.”
Because of China’s actions and military development, Kono used the annual forum hosted by Nikkei to complain about the news media’s portrayal of the annual defense budget.
“In the past decade, Japan’s has been almost flat, with China’s and Russia’s more than doubling, and with Australia, South Korea and India increasing their budgets considerably,” he said. “Under such circumstances, some Japanese media editorials should not take only the fact that Japan’s defense-related budget has reached a record high and criticize this.”
Kono also highlighted Chinese and Russian incursions into Japanese airspace, which have provoked Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force to scramble fighter jets upward of 900 times a year. He stressed that this number is higher than during the Cold War.
Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s surprise resignation in August due to ill health prompted a sudden reshuffling of Japan’s cabinet months before the U.S. presidential election.
But according to Kono, there will be little daylight between Abe and his successor, Yoshihide Suga, when it comes to the Japan-U.S. alliance. Abe famously befriended U.S. President Donald Trump almost as soon as Trump won the presidency in 2016, going on to golf with Trump and eat hamburgers with him.
“I don’t know if Prime Minister Suga will play golf,” Kono said, “but there are no changes between the Abe administration and the Suga administration.
“Even if people change, the alliance remains strong, and I think that is a great strength.”