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Interview with Kono Yohei: The tense U.S.-China relationship and Japan’s diplomatic path

Kono Yohei was born in Kanagawa Prefecture in 1937. He is a former member of the House of Representatives. Kono successively held the posts of the LDP president, deputy prime minister, foreign minister, etc. He is the author of “Outspoken Advice for Japan’s Diplomacy.” 


The following is an interview with Kono Yohei by Sekai’s chief editor Kumagai Shinichiro. 


Recognizing the Current State of the Japan-China Relationship 


Sekai: For a while the Japan-China relationship seemed to be improving, but recently tensions are rising again. What do you think of the current situation? 


Kono: Since the diplomatic normalization between the two countries in 1972, despite some disputes over historical and territorial issues, Japan and China have basically made efforts to build good relations. Deng Xiaoping’s diplomatic policy of self-effacement and his reform and opening-up policy have engendered a certain level of Japanese trust in ChinaIn recent years, many Chinese tourists have visited Japan to experience its history and beautiful scenery and to buy many Japanese products, which has had a great economic effect on many parts of Japan. 


After those Chinese travelers returned home, they shared their Japan experiences with their compatriots and conveyed the various charms of Japan, which helped spread a positive impression of Japan in China. I believe that this improvement in relations between the two countries led to the invitation of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to visit Japan as a state guest scheduled for last spring, although the visit did not materialize due to the spread of COVID-19. 


The Japan-China relationship, however, has been deteriorating rapidly in recent years. I believe there are two reasons for the deterioration.  


The first is the change in China’s behavior. The Chinese government’s hardline measures at home such as the suppression of the democracy movement in Hong Kong and human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region are issues that people of democratic countries like us who value universal freedom and human rights cannot ignore. 


This is especially heartbreaking for people around the world who have always appreciated the free spirit of Hong Kong. Hong Kong has been suppressed by the central government and is in a very challenging situation nowThe Japanese people’s discomfort with such a coercive stance by the Chinese government is one reason that the trust relationship built between Japan and China and the positive perception of China deteriorated in one fell swoop. 


China’s behavior also changed with regard to the territorial dispute with Japan. Chinese government vessels have been increasingly active in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. In additionheavily armed Chinese warships are sailing in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands. The Japanese people feel uneasy about China’s saber rattling over the Senkaku Islands. 


The second reason for the deterioration of the relationship between Japan and China is related to the worsening relationship between the U.S. and China. 


Regarding the first reason for the deterioration in bilateral relations, it is necessary for China to reflect on its own behavior and ease the concerns of the Japanese people. However, the Japanese side must also refrain from exaggerating facts about Chinese affairs in order to stress the theory that China poses a threat. Japan needs to calmly assess facts and respond without losing sight of the bigger picture.  


As for the second reason, we need to reevaluate the extent of the U.S.’s hardline stance toward ChinaIn my view, Japan’s diplomacy seems to be preoccupied with the encirclement of China, assuming that the U.S.’s hardline stance will not change. This is illustrated, for example, by the fact that Japan brought up the issue of the Taiwan Strait during the Japan-U.S. summit meeting [in April]Despite the fact that there are many important themes between Japan and China, including not only security, but also economic and cultural exchange, the current Japanese government views all areas from a perspective of integration of Japan and the U.S. on security 


In the past, Japan has taken the stance that it relies on the U.S. for security but will maintain a good economic relationship with China. However, instead of taking such stanceJapan now views even the economic field, which should be free, through the lens of economic security. 


I do not deny the need to supervise civilian products that can be converted to military use, but we should consider the negative effects of facilely applying the logic of short-term security to the economy. Human exchange through economic activities can be beneficial. In the long run, it would make sense to separate security from the economy, and to set rules for problematic areas through negotiations. 


The U.S. is maintaining a cooperative stance with China on the urgent issue of climate change. In the same way, climate change is a common issue between Japan and China. Furthermore, there are many social issues that are common between Japan and China, such as the declining birthrate and aging population. The knowledge and expertise of Japan, which has experienced the aging of its population, would be valuable to China. Some Japanese companies may be trying to develop a nursing care business in China. Isn’t it unreasonable to restrict such economic activities and human exchanges by shoehorning them into the framework of economic security? 


From the perspective of the U.S., however, Japan is preoccupied with encirclement of China in line with U.S. policy. But what about other countriesDuring the G7 meeting in the UK [in June], the U.S. strongly called for the encirclement of China, but compared with Japan, which actively responded and kept in step with the U.S., Germany, France, and other European countries responded differently. 


Japan’s diplomacy toward China is based on a historical process 


Sekai: During the Japan-U.S. summit in April, the two leaders expressed strong opposition to China and a statement touching on the Taiwan issue was released. 


Kono: The Taiwan issue is very important to China; Beijing describes Taiwan as one of its “core interests.” The fact that Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide brought up the Taiwan issue during the Japan-U.S. summit is not something that should be taken lightly. 


In the negotiations with China for normalization of diplomatic relations, Japan did not squarely accept China’s claim that Taiwan is an inseparable part of the territory of the People’s Republic of China, but it said it “understands” and “respects” China’s claimthus normalization was achieved. Subsequently, China’s position on the relationship between Japan and Taiwan is that Beijing will tacitly accept exchanges between Japan and Taiwan in economy and tourism but not Japan’s support for Taiwan’s move toward independence. Such an unspoken understanding existed between Japan and China. 


So far, China has not strongly reacted to Japan’s stance toward Taiwan. Japan might, however, want to consider how long China will maintain that attitudeJapan has been calling for the “peaceful resolution of the China-Taiwan issue through dialogue between the parties concerned.” As the U.S. increases its military spending in response to China, if Japan adopts a similar line and increases tensions in the Taiwan Strait, China will not take that lying down.   


China is a country where once the Communist Party forms a consensus and establishes a policy, it is not easy to change it. China is still at the stage of holding back from showing a clear attitude toward Japan, but I think it is better for Japan to explain to China what needs to be explained [Japan’s position toward Taiwan] now.  


Kurt Campbell coordinates Asia policy at the White House. He has clearly stated, “In line with the successive U.S. administrations that have supported the one China policy, the current administration does not support Taiwan’s independence.” 


Since diplomatic normalization between Japan and China, the two countries have discussed the important issues of Taiwan, the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, and Yasukuni Shrine, although not all these discussions have been put down on paper.  


In the case of the Taiwan, Japan expressed “understanding” and “respect” for China’s claim. In the case of the territorial issue, the two countries decided to leave the issue for the wisdom of the next generation. In this way, Japan and China purposefully sought equivocal compromises and restored diplomatic relations. 


As for the Yasukuni issue, during the process of normalizing diplomatic relations, China argued that since the Japanese people are also victims of Japanese militarism in the same way as the Chinese peopleJapanese leaders should not visit to the Yasukuni Shrine where Class A war criminals are enshrined. 


As these issues were discussed at the very important juncture of ending the state of war between Japan and ChinaI believe Japan must take them seriously. It seems to me, however, that the current stance of the Japanese government toward China is uncertain. 


Again, the current increase in antipathy toward China among the Japanese people is largely due to changes in China’s own behavior. We must ask China to exercise restraint on the issues of democracy and human rights in Hong Kong and the Uygur Autonomous Region, as well as with regard to the Senkaku Islands. On the other hand, Japan should not forget that it has to behave in a restrained manner as well in light of the historical background between Japan and China.  


Acknowledge a territorial dispute exists and resolve it through negotiations 


Sekai: Tensions over the Senkaku Islands continue to increase. How should Japan respond? 


Kono: In this regard two things concern me.  


The first is the way the territorial issue is treated in school education, including in textbooks. 


According to news reports and other sources, it seems that Japanese schools only teach Japan’s position—that these islands are an inherent territory of Japan. But is that sufficient? 


The international community views all these as disputed territories.  


The Northern Territories are currently under the effective control of Russia, but in the Soviet-Japan negotiations that ended the war [between the two countries], it was agreed that the territorial issue would be negotiated in the future. As for Takeshima, South Korea effectively controls the island, but Japan has repeatedly asserted that Takeshima is Japan’s territoryOn the other hand, Japan effectively controls the Senkaku Islands, but China has long insisted that they are Chinese territory. I heard from [Japanese] officials who attended the negotiations for the Japan-China diplomatic normalization that the issue had also been discussed during the negotiations. 


We should inform children correctly of the current situation over these territorial disputes, including the claims of both sides and the process of negotiations over territorial sovereignty. We should let children know that Japan is claiming its territorial rights based on such historical process. 


My second concern is the current Japanese government’s response to the Senkaku issue. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has brushed aside the Chinese claim, saying that a territorial issue does not exist. However, looking back at the diplomatic negotiations between Japan and China so far, I wonder if that is the right attitude for Japan to take. 


The issue of the possession of the Senkaku Islands was deliberately avoided during negotiations for Japan-China diplomatic normalization in 1972. This is because both Japan and China thought that if they put this issue on the negotiating table, they would not be able to negotiate diplomatic normalization. A Japanese official who participated in the negotiations told me that all the Japanese and Chinese officials involved in the negotiations are aware of thisLater, this issue was shelved partly due to Deng Xiaoping’s statement that the solution to the Senkaku issue should be left to the wisdom of future generations. Then-Treaty Division Director Kuriyama Takakazu of MOFA, who participated in the negotiations for diplomatic normalization with China, describes this process in his memoirs. Based on this premise, Japan and China ended the war between them, normalized diplomatic relations, and developed ties. 


When the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s plan to purchase the Senkaku Islands surfaced, however, the issue was quickly reignited between the two countries. The Japanese government proceeded to nationalize the disputed islands. From China’s viewpoint, if Japan asserts its territorial rights over the Senkaku Islands, whose sovereignty should have been left to the wisdom of future generations, China will feel that Japan abrogated the understandingIt cannot be denied that the current tensions over the Senkaku Islands have arisen from the fact that Japan has created a situation that China cannot tolerate. 


Needless to say, this does not mean that Japan should accept China’s claim over the disputed islands. Given the historical background, however, Japan’s continuing to say that a “territorial dispute [with China] does not exist” will not lessen tensions but will only make them worse. And if such tensions continue, it will have a significantly negative impact on both countries. It will worsen public opinion in both countries and increase the possibility of an accidental clash around the Senkaku Islands. Japan, which has effective control over the Senkaku Islands, must remain constantly vigilant because it is unpredictable when and how China will intrude into Japan’s territorial waters. A stable situation around the Senkaku Islands has already been lost. 


How should diplomacy with China be conducted? 


The fundamental question is whether Japan will contain and confront China or, on the contrary, negotiate and cooperate with it 


Of course, it would be the best for Japan that China becomes a democratic country and both Japan and China coexist and prosper with shared valuesHowever, I must say that this is unlikely, at least in the short run. 


Japan needs to think the matter from a different perspective. Instead of unilaterally urging China to change its thinking, the two countries should find rules based on negotiations for mutual understanding and coexistence. 


More than anything else Japan and China must conduct direct negotiations. That is the basis of diplomacy. Japan, however, lacks willingness to resolve issues through discussionThe COVID-19 pandemic broke out at a very unfortunate time and has become a major obstacle to diplomatic negotiations and human exchanges. But the two countries should, if allowed, start diplomatic negotiations immediately.  


If Japan just watches what the U.S. and China are doing and does not make proactive efforts, it will never be able to solve issues. Increasing defense spending alone will not improve the situation but will only inflame tensions. From a long-term perspective, Japan should come up with a clear plan and start negotiations. 


Also, in order to improve the Japan-China relationship, improving the Japan-South Korea relationship is necessaryThe relationship between Japan and the ROK has deteriorated due in part to a series of moves by South KoreaPresident Moon Jae-in, however, with only a few months left in his term, is now trying to improve relations with Japan. Nevertheless, the Japanese government has been unresponsive to South Korea’s overtures, and instead unilaterally urges the ROK to change its thinking. 


Japan needs to think carefully about why it needs to improve the Japan-South Korea relationship. Improving relations between Japan and the ROK is also essential for the improvement of the Japan-North Korea relationship as Japan remains exposed to threats posed by the DPRK. 


I believe that Japan should improve its relations with China, South Korea, and North Korea, and beyond that, I envision a Northeast Asia community as a long-term goal of Japanese diplomacy. The primary objective of Japanese diplomacy is long-term peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. I believe that Japan should proactively make diplomatic efforts for the peace of the Asia-Pacific region. (Abridged) 

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