In light of the sixtieth anniversary of the United States-Japan Alliance, Japanese Minister of Defense Kono Tarovisited Washington D.C. to hold a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, on January 14, 2020. During Minister Kōno’s visit, GJIA sat down with him in an exclusive interview on January 15 to discuss the United States-Japan Alliance, the impact of technological advancements on defense policy, and the future of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).
GJIA: It was sixty years ago in January 1960 when the Japan-United States Security Treaty was revised to mark the beginning of this alliance as we now know it. What is the strategic importance of this cooperation? How has this alliance adapted to new and evolving geopolitical challenges?
KT: The alliance has helped maintain peace and stability in Asia for more than half a century. It was established not only to protect Japan from external aggressors. Japan also provides a base for forward deployment for the United States, enabling it to play the role of peacekeeper and stability provider to Asia. This alliance is stronger than ever. We hope to keep it this way. This alliance is based not just on shared interests but is also based on our shared values, such as democracy and the rule of law. We would also like to use this alliance to promote these common values in the region.
In your keynote speech yesterday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), you maintained that “the world is becoming increasingly dependent on technologies that run through the cyber domain; technological advancement is fundamentally changing how we fight.” In the capacity of Japan’s Defense Minister, how have you responded to these changes, as contemporary warfare is now fought in combined domains?
We used to talk about fighting on land, at sea, and in the air, but today, it is all coming together into one big “chunk.” Wherever you are, you are connected to the cyber domain. It is therefore important for you to talk about how you can communicate with your naval strengths, air strengths, and what you have on land. You need to talk about cybersecurity; you need to talk about communications. Moreover, you have to not only think about land, sea, and air but also look out for a new dimension: outer space. We need to increase our capability: a stronger technological background will be needed in a modern war, just in case one occurs.
You argued in the same speech that the United States and Japan should focus on pushing for diplomatic efforts with Russia in order to “get China engaged in a framework towards the armed reduction of new strategic weapons alongside the United States and Russia in the post-INF period.” Many in Washington would frown at this proposal to engage with Moscow. Can you perhaps elaborate on this argument?
While the United States and the Soviet Union were bound by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, China was able to do whatever it wanted. China has increased its missile capabilities while U.S. and Russian hands were tied. Now that the INF has expired, it is important to establish a new framework for arms control. You have to get China involved because China is the world’s second-largest economy with a large military power and is getting bigger and bigger. When you think about the Russian economy, it is approximately the size of the South Korean economy, so it does not make sense to get the United States and Russia to sit together to set the rules for themselves, while the world’s second-largest economy—which is growing to become number one—remains free to do what it is doing. If you think about the Russians living in the Far East, there are probably about six million of them, but across the border, there are at least a hundred million Chinese living there. It is in Russia’s interest to work with the United States to get China involved in missile issues. Also, the United States and Russia need to work with the United Kingdom and France to get China on board for nuclear arms control efforts, so it will benefit all to work with Russia and set the standard for China as well.
In your role as a “defense diplomat,” which opportunities do you see for Japan to strengthen its security partnerships with countries whose interests are not as obviously aligned with the US-Japan alliance? For example, what is the strategic importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to the alliance’s vision of the Indo-Pacific?
For a lot of ASEAN countries, their economies depend on the free and safe navigation in waters around Asia, so our vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific coincides with the ASEAN outlook. There are a lot of issues where we can work together. Japan, ASEAN, India, Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and now France are all saying that they are “Indo-Pacific” countries. If you look at France’s New Caledonia or French Polynesia, there are a lot of shared interests in realizing a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. With a shared vision, we can work together with ASEAN countries. We can provide capacity building for their coast guards. We can work together to strengthen international rules and promote capacity building with respect to international law in these countries. There are many things that we need to do and we need to work together to achieve these.
You have highlighted how “fiscal constraints and a decline in population due to low birth rates present limitations to Japan’s defense budget and human resources.” What are the main challenges in Japanese domestic politics that might, to some extent, prevent you from implementing your vision as the Defense Minister?
There are two major issues. The first is the defense budget. The second is our human resources. Japan has a huge budget deficit, so we have a very tight ceiling on how much money we can spend on the budget. This means that we need to be very efficient. We have to think about what our priorities are and where our defense money should go, not just for the next year, but ten and twenty years down the line as well. It is also getting more and more difficult to recruit people for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF). The unemployment rate is very low, and there are many job opportunities for young people these days. If you get on a submarine, you will not be able to gain access to Wi-Fi for many days, so a lot of young people do not want to get into ships or submarines. However, we still need to mount those destroyers, submarines, and all of that defense equipment, so, how are we going to prioritize our spending? How are we going to recruit young people? Regarding the cyber domain, you need good people who have strong communication skills. But if they join private companies, they probably will get paid more. How are we going to recruit the good ones; how are we going to train them; and how are we going to retain them? These issues cause a lot of headaches.
During your time in Washington, you have engaged in a series of meetings with your counterpart Mark Esper. What are the key priorities for you and Japan’s Ministry of Defense at large during this trip to the United States?
Well, we always need to exchange views with our allies. It has been a very good opportunity to sit down with Secretary Esper to talk about what is going on in the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, China, as well as the Pacific Island countries. Therefore, my priority was to sit down with Secretary Esper before I visited the White House. It is always good to spend some time talking about what is on your mind and get reactions from your counterpart.
While serving as Japan’s Foreign Minister, you emphasized how the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was supposed to “establish new rules” for Pacific countries including New Zealand, Vietnam, Japan, and so forth. Following the United States’ withdrawal, there are now only eleven states in what is now the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). What are the key opportunities and challenges for this agreement? Is a partnership including twelve states still feasible? When the United States started this agreement under President Barack Obama, the goal was to create new rules and standards for the Asia-Pacific or Indo-Pacific region. We thought that this was important, so the Abe Administration in Japan chose to pay quite an expensive political cost and join the TPP. Then, as we joined the TPP, the United States decided to leave. It is important to have the United States involved in the rule-making of the region, so we are hoping that the United States will consider returning to the TPP soon. If nothing changes, Japan is scheduled this April to welcome President Xi Jinping, who will embark on the first state visit to Tokyo by a Chinese President since 2008 (Note: This state visit has been postponed due to the Coronavirus pandemic). This trip is expected to foster closer bilateral ties between Japan and China. In your view, which common priorities will stand out as most important for the two nations? Well, we have had our difficulties between Japan and China for quite some time, but now we have had Premier Li Keqiang visiting Japan, Prime Minister Abe visiting China, President Xi Jinping coming to Osaka for the G20 Summit, and Prime Minister Abe visiting China again. This state visit will conclude this first round of high-level exchanges. We would like to welcome President Xi to Tokyo this spring, but at the same time, China needs to work harder to improve the situation such as by stopping its violation of our territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, etc. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to create a good atmosphere for this visit. We hope that China will see that and work out these issues so that there will be a very good atmosphere, and we can extend a heartfelt welcome to President Xi for this state visit.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
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Kono Taro(河野 太郎) is Japan’s current Minister of Defense. Elected as a member of the House of Representatives in 1996, he previously served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs before assuming his current role in 2019 following Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet reshuffle. A member of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Minister Kono also served as the Chair of Japan’s National Public Safety Commission from 2015 until 2016. He received his Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service from Georgetown University in 1985.
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