For spring 2015, The Diplomat presents “Diplomatic Access,” a series of exclusive interviews with ambassadors from the Asia-Pacific region. By talking to these diplomats, we’ll give readers a sense of each country’s perspective on various regional economic and security trends — from TPP to the Silk Road Economic Belt; from the South China Sea disputes to the Islamic State. Check out the whole series to date here.
In this interview, His Excellency Kenichiro Sasae, Ambassador of Japan to the U.S., discusses the U.S.-Japan alliance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and how to overcome tensions between Japan and China.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
The Diplomat: From Japan’s perspective, what are the greatest threats to regional security?
Amb. Sasae: In the traditional sense of the word “threat,” I don’t think that there is an immediate, physical threat of that sort. But as you know, there is always a traditional sense of uneasiness and concern, and we had this throughout the Cold War. Especially on the Korean peninsula, there are still tensions and the legacy of the Cold War between North and South. North Korea is very much a concern to us: their nuclear development and missile development, their confrontational and isolated mode. We don’t have any contact with people there, and the government is not moving toward democracy. So it is a very difficult situation. As we see, if there is no halt to this trend of North Korean missile and nuclear development, there could be a potential threat.
I don’t think that at this moment we expect a certain contingency to happen. But obviously, we have to prepare for that. There are two things we need to do. One is increasing our deterrence so that North Korea will not misunderstand the level of our capacity to respond – whatever their actions might be. But at the same time, we have to be engaged with dialogue with them, so that we can somehow work out the formula by which North Korea would abandon their nuclear weapons and also curb their missile development so that we can have a better, and hopefully, normal relationship with them. That’s one of the areas where there is a potential threat.
About China, we don’t define China as a “threat.” China is a very important neighbor to us, and has been throughout history. And most of the time, we have maintained a good relationship with them. But in the modern era, we had some difficult periods with them, as you know. We fought a war, and it was a very sad period. But even after the war, we restored the diplomatic relationship, and we increased our exchanges of people, business, and trade. We supported Chinese development throughout the period after the end of the war. So basically, we have maintained a good relationship with China and we hope that this will be the norm in the century ahead.
We welcome Chinese economic development and we benefit from mutual interdependence with China on the economic front. Chinese economic development will be a good source for the future growth of the Asian economy. So I think we should welcome their peaceful rise. The question is: Is their rise is accompanied by some of the principles and values we do have, like freedom, democracy, the rule of law, and peaceful engagement. There are concerns on this front. There’s the non-transparent Chinese military infrastructure buildup — we really don’t know where the limit is or where it’s going. There’s the recent assertive policy in the maritime domain, whether it is the East China Sea or the South China Sea.
So I think there are tensions rising, and I think these are some of the areas where we need to have improvement, especially improvement on the part of China to practice restraint so that we can have a better relationship. I think that at this moment, we are detecting some signs that this aggressive and confrontational mode might not necessarily be in China’s interests. So we welcome that recognition and hope that recognition will prevail so that we can have a better and stable relationship with China. But at this moment, and hopefully in the future, we don’t have to think of China as a “threat.” We should think of China as a friend and partner in the future.
So what can be done to address some of these problems?
I think we should have more dialogue and not only people-to-people, but also government-to-government and business-to-business — at different levels. At this moment, we still think that there should be more frequent exchanges of dialogue between the leaders. We used to do it many years ago. It’s only slowed in recent times, because of some of the tensions we have witnessed. But as we see at this moment, there are signs of improvement, and I think we should push this forward.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been advocating for an expanded role for Japan in the security realm, both in the region and beyond, under the idea of “proactive pacifism.” How would you define this “proactive pacifism” and how is it the same as or different from the pacifism that Japan has embraced for the past 70 years?
I think this notion of “pacifism” or, I would say, “working for peace” — that we will make contributions to the peace — that is consistent throughout the period after the war. I think that fundamental will prevail. But when we say “proactive,” it means that we don’t simply sit back and become bystanders for some of the problems arising, whether it is within the region or globally. There are all these issues: terrorism, the impact of pollution, climate change, and even in traditional security area, there are some conflicts around the region and also beyond the region.
So we should make our defense posture more adaptive to the requirements of the changing security environment. One part of that is for the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to do more proactive work, for example, with the United Nations’ peacekeeping operations. For some time, under the interpretation of the traditional constitutional theory, we were not allowed to exercise collective defense, even to have the Self-Defense Forces to go hand-in-hand with other peacekeeping partners, like the “blue helmets,” for example. So these are some of the things we need to address.
And also if there is a contingency, whether it’s on the Korean peninsula or another place, I think we should not totally depend upon American support, and not do our share of the work. We need to have more capacity to go hand-in-hand with America and other countries that are very close to us as friends and allies. I think this is basically a peace-oriented, peace-seeking effort to make our stance more clear in terms of our own role in the peace. That is what “proactive pacifism” is, as you called it. We call this what we call a “proactive contribution to the peace.”
Prime Minister Abe will be in the United States later this month. What will be the major topics under discussion as he meets with U.S. leaders?
I think he will discuss the value of the alliance: the alliance of the past, the alliance of the present, and the alliance of the future. So he will talk about and address the question of what we can do together with the United States — not only for the sake of the region, but also beyond the region. Like I said, there’s a lot on the global agenda, like, Ebola and the health agenda, the environment, and terrorism.
But not only that, we will obviously also address the regional security agenda. We will reference that, and in that context, obviously we expect there will be much discussion about the future direction of America’s rebalancing policy. We will address this question about a “proactive contribution to the peace” and what we mean by that. And that will dictate where we are heading in the future. That means we have to share a common vision for the region and beyond. So the prime minister will address these future visions, together with the president.
Also, on the economic side, obviously there is the Trans-Pacific Partnership agenda. It’s now coming to the final phase, so we will assess and promote this together, because this economic component is also an integral part of regional rebalancing on the part of America. And on our part, this is a very important segment of Abenomics, where there is economic reform now underway. So the TPP is also an important topic to be addressed.
Japan and the U.S. are only two out of 12 countries involved in the negotiations, but given the size of their economies, they’re often seen as the two major countries involved. How important is it for Japan, and for the U.S.-Japan relationship, for these negotiations to be successful?
First of all, this is not simply Japan and the U.S. This is basically designed to shape the free trade order in the region. These trade negotiations are addressing not only tariff and non-tariff issues — traditional issues — but also addressing new rules, whether intellectual property, labor regulations, the environment, the role of government enterprises and government procurement. All these segments are not necessarily covered in the regional rules. This is designed to go after 21st-century, high-standard rules.
In that regard, both the United States and Japan can not only benefit from getting this free trade agreement but also this could become the norm in the coming century for free trade in the region. If we believe that the Asia-Pacific is the future of world economic growth and world trade growth, then there have to be high standard rules to govern the region. These high standard rules in the Asia-Pacific could eventually prevail globally, and that is what we want to see. That is why this is very strategic, in the sense that Japan and the United States will exercise leadership to work on the new rules, and to govern.
When it comes to the China-Japan relationship, we had a couple of years of tensions and now it seems that relations have been moving toward a thaw, with restarted dialogues in a number of fields. How can both Japan and China keep the relationship moving forward?
I think the most important thing is to work on getting more engagement and sharpening engagement and dialogue at all levels. The government should not put any restraints on the free flow of people, information, and money, and all of the human exchanges.
Under that, I think obviously, on a government-to-government level, there are some issues we need to address — some of the issues and security concerns I just explained some time ago.
But we want to see more younger-generation people go on exchanges. I think they quite often don’t know what’s happening in the other country. And some of their views are not necessarily formed directly — they just take some of the filtered information as reality. I think it’s good for the younger generation to see each other and see each other’s countries and have their own understanding, rather than getting second- or third-hand information about each other. So that is the basis for good friendship.
Another thing, on a government-to-government level, we need to work on some crisis management mechanisms, which is now under discussion between the two governments. For example, when we address this maritime question, we don’t want to see any accidents based on a misunderstanding. There have to be proper channels to communicate, both on the sea and on the ground and between the capitals. That is a very important thing for us, because the majority of people, both Japanese and, I believe, Chinese people, don’t want to see tensions rising. It is the governments’ responsibility to make sure that we have a proper relationship and don’t get into being too emotional or playing with public sentiment. So I think all these channels of dialogue and exchanges will become more important in the months and years ahead.
A lot of attention has been focused on Japan’s increased engagement with Southeast Asia, but Japan has been involved with this region for decades. What is new about Japan’s engagement with Southeast Asia today?
There are two things. One: newly arising problems. The security environment, as we just discussed, is one thing, and there’s the nontraditional security agenda, like disaster management, and also other issues like diseases, terrorism, and piracy. All these things are new issues.
So there’s a level beyond what we have done helping and supporting regional economic development through more trade and investment and more aid — aid means the economic assistance program. Throughout the years, we have been the biggest donor to Asian countries, and we still are. We will continue to do it. But at the same time, you have to respond to the new requirements, like the issues I just mentioned.
Also in terms of, say, regional connectivity, for example — ASEAN countries are talking about the importance of connectivity. Connectivity means infrastructure connectivity, economic connectivity, and even political and security connectivity. So given all this ASEAN unity and solidarity, we are in a position to do more to support this effort, especially with the ASEAN countries.
Also, there is more we can do to make sure of the path of democracy. Most of the Asian countries are democracies. There are different paths, but there is a difference of degree. We are in a position to encourage and support the spreading of basic values – of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. There is still some way to go, depending on the country involved, but I think we, together with the United States, are in a position to support these processes without getting into too much preaching.