‘We Face a Very Serious Chinese Military Threat’

Japan's former defense minister talks to FP about cyberattacks, the East China Sea face-off, and whether North Korea's Kim Jong Un is a puppet dictator.


Over the weekend, when President Barack Obama met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, China’s territorial disputes came up in conversation. The most pressing is China’s claim on the Diaoyu, a small island chain administered by the Japanese, who call it the Senkakus. It’s probably the most dangerous flashpoint in China’s often tense relationship with Japan, and a big worry for Satoshi Morimoto, Japan’s defense minister from July 2012 to December (he’s now a professor at Takushoku University). The first defense minister since World War II who was not a member of the Diet, Japan’s parliament, Morimoto is a defense expert, not a politician. In September, his government nationalized the Senkaku Islands, inciting protests across China; that a political outsider like Morimoto now calls China "an obvious threat" is all the more worrying.

Foreign Policy sat down with Morimoto in Tokyo to discuss China’s aggressive posture, Japan’s historical record during World War II, and whether or not North Korea’s president, Kim Jong Un, is just a puppet leader. Interview is edited and condensed for clarity.

Foreign Policy: How should Japan communicate to the United States that China is a threat?

Satoshi Morimoto: The United States is very confident in its ability to manage its military and power, and power projection capability in the future. But on the other hand, Japan, and most ASEAN countries, face a very serious Chinese military threat. Under President Barack Obama, the United States has basically an engagement policy approach towards China. But we believe that a more hedging approach is necessary, both for the United States and for Japan, to manage China’s military in the blue ocean.

FP: How worried are you that China and Japan would, or will, go to war?

SM: I don’t think China will declare war and attack the Senkakus with a Chinese military landing force. However, they intend to demonstrate their sovereignty over the islands. A Chinese official ship may capture our fishing boats, within the territorial waters of Senkakus. Or maybe they will send official ships and fishing boats within the territorial waters, and some small unit would land on the Senkakus and stake the Chinese flag — the same behavior they do in the South China Sea.   

Our basic position is not to provoke China, and to be very calm, and very patient, in order to protect our territory. I think this kind of official behavior will continue a long time. But there is nothing we can do.

FP: How vulnerable is Japan to cyberattacks from China?

SM: Already our society, including government organizations, as well as some [parts of] the defense and IT industries have already been the target of cyberattacks from China, although China denies conducting such very intentional cyberattacks. The problem is we have no concrete or comprehensive international law to prohibit cyberattacks or cyber-terrorism against another country. Mainly due to the definition of cyber — it’s so difficult, so complex. Even if we could define what cyber is, we have no international organization or mechanism to detect cyberattacks. And even if we can detect cyberattacks, we cannot intervene on the sovereignty of another nation.

FP: Do you think Chinese President Xi Jinping is in control of policy, or is it perhaps rogue generals making decisions?

SM: Xi has control of not only the party but also [China’s military], the People’s Liberation Army. However, we have some concerns that a small number of very aggressive military officers will make very intentional conduct without a concrete order from the Central Committee of the Party, or the commander in chief of the PLA.

We have had two mishaps, almost simultaneously — the Chinese locked weapons-guiding radar on a Japanese destroyer in January, and they also at roughly the same time locked a weapons-guiding radar on a Japanese helicopter. The two incidents came from two different Chinese ships — that means a different commander ordered it. But I don’t think that came from a Chinese top leader.

FP: Do you believe that Kim Jong Un is actually running North Korea?

SM: We have no evidence of how much control he has, not only of his party but of the military. We have evidence that Kim Jong Un has never had a direct talk with any leader of the world. Not even China. Someone is maybe using Kim Jong Un as a puppet.

FP: Do you have sources in North Korea?

SM: We have many sources in North Korea, but unfortunately we cannot say in detail. The United States, South Korea, and Japan all have their own intelligence resources, but in different ways.

FP: How?

SM: The United States has a satellite, South Korea has human intelligence, and we have almost 200,000 North Korean inhabitants in [Japan] — as well as a key member of North Korea’s congress, who lives here. Not openly. When they have some assembly, this key member joins the general assembly in Pyongyang.

FP: Should Japan apologize again for its wartime atrocities? How can Japan learn from, say, Germany’s treatment of Israel after the war to move beyond World War II?

SM: We apologized for the historical event not only to China and South Korea, but to all Asian countries. Since the end of World War II, we have not conducted any incident or historical issue. We have not invaded, nor menaced, another country. We have concentrated on building our defense forces in a very peaceful manner, and never sent self-defense forces beyond our territory unless it was with participation of U.N. peacekeeping operations.

It’s been more than 68 years since the end of World War II — I cannot understand why China raises these historic events every year.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He was formerly the Asia editor at Foreign Policy Magazine. Twitter: @isaacstonefish

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