Spy Drones, Disputed Islands, and Diplomatic Firestorms

Japan's defense minister talks to Foreign Policy.


In early September, Foreign Policy spoke with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera in his massive and faded office in Tokyo, under a map of the Korean Peninsula. But it’s China that dominates: last week, the Japanese Defense Ministry reported it scrambled fighter jets in response to an unidentified drone, presumably Chinese, flying near Japanese airspace. It’s just the latest provocation in the near-Cold War between Japan and China that started when the Japanese government agreed to buy a small cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea from a private Japanese owner one year ago.

The purchase of the islands — known as the Senkakus to the Japanese, which administers them, and the Diaoyus to the Chinese, which claims them — set off a diplomatic firestorm. China erupted in massive anti-Japanese protests. Chinese ships now regularly intrude into the waters around the Senkakus; relations between the two countries remain worryingly tense.

The world’s third-largest economy and a close ally of the United States, Japan has long been restricted from maintaining a formal military by its post-World War II constitution. But Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and Coast Guard patrol the Senkakus for the country. "We have dealt with those intrusions peacefully, and I believe that the islands are effectively under Japan’s control," Onodera said in interview.

Foreign Policy and Onodera discussed the possibility of using drones to guard the Senkakus, whether his country will get involved with U.S. efforts in Syria, and how the Edward Snowden affair played in Tokyo. The interview was conducted through an interpreter and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Foreign Policy: What kind of commitment has the United States given to you in terms of defending the Senkakus if China attacks? And what kind of commitment would you like?

Itsunori Onodera: We don’t have any assumptions that specific incidents will occur. But the area in and around the Senkakus is controlled by Japan, and the lands controlled by Japan are subject to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty Article V [which states that "an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety"]. The United States and Japan have agreed in talks that the United States is obligated to fulfill Article 5 in case anything happens.

FP: If things were to go bad, what kind of support does Japan envision — for example, boots on the ground?

IO: It’s Japanese territory, so in principle we are to manage it by ourselves. But the Security Treaty states that at that time, the United States and Japan will deal with it jointly.

FP: Do you have any plans to use drones to defend or patrol remote islands like the Senkakus?

IO: We are considering how to conduct warning and surveillance activities, and drones are one of the options.

FP: What has the United States asked from Japan in regards to U.S. plans for Syria?

IO: Previously, we have provided Syria with various forms of support, including economic. Since the situation has recently become politically unstable, we have received a lot of information from many countries, not just the United States. At this stage, I’d like to decline to comment on what the United States has asked of Japan.

FP: Is there a worry that the United States’ involvement in another Middle East war will distract the United States from its rebalancing to Asia?

IO: U.S. emphasis on Asia won’t be changed. Although Syria is now the biggest issue, the rebalance, and the emphasis on Asia, is beneficial to the United States.

FP: What methods does the Defense Ministry have for communicating with the Chinese military?

IO: Until last September, we had chances to consult closely with each other. Since the Senkakus issue arose, however, there hasn’t been an official talk between ministers, except for some exchange of administrative information.

FP: Did Edward Snowden’s revelations [of U.S. cyber-espionage] affect the ministry’s relationship with the United States at all?

IO: We don’t have strong interest regarding that matter, but most Japanese have had an impression that their [the U.S.] way of collecting information is really thorough.

FP: Does Japan have that "thorough" method of collecting information too?

IO: We do it within the limit of law, and we are not doing it as extensively as the United States. Because the Internet is connected all around the world, there is no information only available to Japan. It should be also available to the United States. But I don’t know what kind of method the United States is taking.

FP: On Aug. 30, the Defense Ministry announced it was seeking a 3 percent budget increase. How does Japan explain the rise of military cost to China? How do you justify that?

IO: To China? [Their budget] has quadrupled over [roughly] 10 years, so I’m not even sure whether we should call our 3 percent an "increase." Rather, it’s sensible to say it’s staying flat. If I were to add anything, because of the North Korean missile threat, we needed to strengthen our surveillance. The budget increase was just a necessary amount, not a big rise.

FP: How firm of a control does President Kim Jong Un have over North Korea?

IO: So far we haven’t heard any criticism from North Koreans against him, and we consider that indicates his control of North Korea.

FP: If Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe succeeds in amending the constitution, is there a plan in place to communicate it to China beforehand, in order to alleviate tension?

IO: I think it’s common for any countries to amend their constitutions, and it’s unlikely that China would explain anything to Japan before they make a big change to their law. The Japanese Constitution states that Japan should not possess a military. But we regard the SDF [Self-Defense Forces] as a force to defend ourselves. Some are now arguing, "Why not solve that contradiction?"

FP: So SDF possibly contradicts the constitution — so are you just amending the constitution to reach a new reality?

IO: That’s the main point of our discussion. We have SDF for self-defense, while the constitution says we don’t have a military. We can call it a matter of interpretation, as we have so far, or we could amend the constitution and come closer to reality.

FP: When was the last time an issue kept you awake all night?

IO: North Korea has made some statements that are intended to threaten Japan. My job is to prepare for an emergency, so this kind of worry sometimes keeps me awake all night.

I want to mention that the reason Japan allies with the United States and prepares its defense capability is that Japan wants to bring stability to Asia. A stable Asia would be economically beneficial to the United States. We want to stabilize Asia and make sure no problems will occur in the region. That will have a positive impact not only on the U.S. economy, but also the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean ones. Therefore, we are making efforts to maintain our security.

FP: Are there any misconceptions you see in the United States or China, regarding Japan’s defense policy, that you would like to clear up?

IO: Japanese defense capability is intended only for the purpose of security and peace in the region. When we take any action, it is based on close discussion with the United States. As is stated in our constitution, we just defend ourselves and will never invade or go to war with other countries.

We have explained it to them, and they should have a good understanding of it.

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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