Foreign Policy talks to Japan’s former defense minister about reinterpreting the country's constitution to counter China’s peaceful rise.
When one speaks of turmoil on the Korean Peninsula, it’s usually in reference to North Korea, not South Korea.
But Itsunori Onodera, who stepped down as Japan’s defense minister in September 2014, has some concerns with Seoul’s “provocative” actions toward Pyongyang.
Now a member of Japan’s parliament, the Diet, Onodera is still intimately involved with Japan’s defense policy, including the controversial debate over the reinterpretation of the country’s constitution, which — if it passes — would permit Japan to field a more active military.
In his office in the Diet on June 15, Foreign Policy‘s Isaac Stone Fish spoke with Onodera about Japan’s use of drones, tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and whether anyone actually believes that China will rise peacefully.
The interview, conducted through an interpreter, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Foreign Policy: Are you worried about North Korean instability, after all those reports in May that Kim Jong Un had executed his defense minister?
Itsunori Onodera: I’ve also heard that Kim has been recently executing top-ranking defense officials. The situation is difficult for me to judge: whether [these moves] strengthened Kim’s power base or whether they happened because there is instability within the North Korean defense forces.
But I do have concerns over a slightly provocative action to North Korea, out of South Korea.
[South Korean] President Park Geun-hye has actually viewed and inspected a missile-launch test targeting North Korea, which is a new, recent development. Our concern is that this — we hope — would not be provocative to North Korea.
With domestic turmoil and public unrest recently in South Korea, Park’s approval rating has declined, and I hope that she will not turn to coercive measures.
FP: What’s the latest on the Diet’s negotiations on reinterpreting the constitution?
IO: Japan alone cannot guard or sustain peace. Therefore, for the purpose of maintaining peace, we have been developing our alliance with the United States, as well as developing friendly relations and ties with other countries.
With the security pact, the United States has the responsibility to co-defend Japan.
Naturally, the Japan Self-Defense Forces [SDF] would also have to — as a precondition — defend Japan. However, under the current legislation, the Japanese SDF cannot provide sufficient protection to the U.S. Navy defending Japan.
In fact, if a naval vessel of the United States is attacked, defending that vessel in international waters would be considered an act of collective self-defense.
And if a certain country attacks the United States and launches a missile that flies over Japanese airspace, the current legislation may not enable Japan to counterstrike that missile.
In instances where an attack on a U.S. naval vessel would have major consequences to Japan’s security, only in that limited occasion would Japan be able to exercise collective self-defense. It is only under these limited conditions and circumstances.
FP: On June 14, I saw thousands of people protesting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his plan to reinterpret the constitution, outside of the Diet. Should Washington be worried that Tokyo won’t be able to pass this bill?
IO: I don’t see any problem with passing the bill after a certain period. Like Abe has mentioned, I believe that by this summer, this bill will be passed. At the latest, the bill is likely to be passed by the end of August. However, it may go … into September.
FP: If Japan is able to successfully amend the constitution, can you talk about some of the things Japan can do to help the United States in the Middle East?
IO: It would be better not to think that the reinterpretation would enable Japan to do significantly more to support U.S. activities in the Middle East.
FP: As a courtesy, is Japan communicating with Beijing about amending the constitution?
IO: I’ve heard that at the diplomatic level, the Japanese government has been briefing countries neighboring Japan, including China.
FP: Would you characterize the situation that Japan and China are in as a cold war or at risk of entering into that kind of situation?
IO: No. I don’t note this is a cold-war situation. However, not only Japan, but also various countries in Southeast Asia, are closely monitoring Chinese moves.
FP: When China speaks of a “peaceful rise” and a “harmonious society,” do you think other neighboring countries believe China? Does Tokyo believe China?
IO: I don’t think we or they believe that. However, any country would [want] to develop friendly relations with China on the economic front.
FP: Has the situation with the Senkaku Islands worsened or improved since we last spoke in September 2013?
IO: It has not really changed since then. Chinese public vessels have on a number of occasions entered [Japanese] territorial waters, but there haven’t been any incidents with the Chinese navy.
FP: Is Japan using drones to patrol the Senkakus?
IO: We currently have conventional planes patrolling for surveillance and monitoring purposes. At present, I don’t think that it is specifically planned to use drones to patrol the Senkakus.
[However,] Japan intends to effectively make use of drones. [We will] introduce the Global Hawk that U.S. forces have been using … [which] is effective for conducting surveillance and patrolling an extensive area.
FP: Is China using drones to patrol the Senkakus?
IO: I have heard that there were some signs suggesting that. But I haven’t heard the specifics.
Photo credit: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images