February 6, 2014 12:00 am JST

Seeking a new framework for dialogue with China

TSUYOSHI SUNOHARA, Nikkei senior staff writer

The international arena is increasingly concerned about tensions in Northeast Asia. The world's third-largest economy, Japan, and a rising China look to many to be on a collision course.

     At the heart of the tensions are divergent interpretations of modern history, and some small rocky islands in the East China Sea called the Senkakus by Tokyo and Diaoyu by Beijing.

     Speaking to the Nikkei Asian Review, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated convictions that his country has no intention of sparking conflict with China and is ready to contribute to the 21st century global agenda as a responsible stakeholder. He also shared his thoughts on diplomacy, trade in the 21st century and security.

Q: What did you accomplish at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland?

A: The fact I was invited to the Davos conference to give the first keynote speech by a Japanese leader is, I believe, a clear sign the world has upped its attention on Japan's economic recovery. This is a result of huge efforts by the Japanese people; I am very proud of that.

     I believe it is important to show that Japan has been changing and will continue to change. I went to Davos to share this belief by presenting some policy initiatives. I wanted to show that the world can count on Japan's future.

     The conference was full and, as a politician, I was impressed with the response. They were keenly interested in what Japan's prime minister had to say. 

Q: What was the reaction like to your "third arrow" of "Abenomics"?

A: They really focused on the launch of the third arrow of Abenomics (a growth strategy). In particular, they wanted to know whether I can further the deregulation reforms. As you know, Japan has been tackling deregulation, but there are areas that remain regulated. These are known as the bedrock, since they are hard to crack. I stressed that I will tackle them, I will bore through this bedrock, like a drill. 

     At the same time, I promised I would transform Japan's society into one in which women can fully exert their abilities and talents. Unfortunately, Japan is not at that point yet. This, however, means our nation still has a lot of potential.

     On these two particular points, the response from the audience was very positive.

Q: Just recently, a Japanese female scientist made a historic discovery in cell reprogramming with stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells, or STAP cells.

A: Yes, it is a great achievement for Dr. Haruko Obokata. The ability of young women to be flexible in their thinking is behind Obokata's achievements. I am determined to make new initiatives for women as a pillar of our economic growth strategy, rather than as a social policy.

Q: The Chinese government has been vocal in its claims that a conflict between China and Japan would be due solely to Tokyo's provocative actions. How do you respond to that?

A: The bilateral relationship Japan has with China is one of our most important. With our deep interdependence in a variety of areas, the two countries are too closely connected to be separated.

     Moreover, let me state clearly that, as a matter of reality, the two countries could never clash. We must not let that happen. I believe this conviction is shared by Chinese leaders.

     As a starting point, we should go back to the Mutually Beneficial Relationship based on Common Strategic Interests between Japan and China, which I agreed with China's then-leaders when I was prime minister in 2006. We should focus on enhancing ties and, when we disagree on a particular issue, avoid letting that damage the entire relationship.

     With regard to the Senkaku Islands, history and international law show that they are clearly and inherently Japan territory. However, China has been intensifying its efforts to change the status quo, dispatching their vessels so often into our territorial waters around the islands.

     In addition, China last November unilaterally declared its own air defense identification zone. Japan has responded in a calm manner.

     Prior to that, a Chinese navy frigate directed its fire-control radar at a Self-Defense Forces destroyer in the East China Sea. Around the same time, a Chinese frigate is suspected of having directed the same kind of radar at an SDF helicopter as well.

     Such actions are extremely dangerous because, at some point, they could trigger unpredictable consequences. However, we showed self-control and responded in a unified manner. I must state this self-restraint posture clearly. Needless to say, we will keep that stance.

     I believe it is necessary to avoid unexpected situations by reducing unnecessary misunderstandings on both the Japanese and Chinese sides. This is because China is dispatching its vessels into our territorial waters on a regular basis. There has been a conspicuous rise in the number of SDF scrambles against Chinese aircraft too.

     Therefore, the need for a communication mechanism between Japanese and Chinese defense authorities is more pressing than ever. I emphasized this point in my speech at Davos last month.

     In my first term as prime minister, I proposed strengthening our defense communication mechanism, and my Chinese counterparts agreed to do so in order to prevent unpredictable consequences. China has unfortunately yet to start implementing this agreement. I will continue to sincerely urge China to comply and agree to start the implementation. This is not only for Japan's sake but also for China's. Our two countries' efforts will contribute to peace and stability in the region.

Q: At Davos, you mentioned the U.K.-Germany relationship before World War I. What was the implication?

A: I tried to emphasize at Davos that what Asia really needs for peace and prosperity is not military power or intimidation but dialogue and rule of law. It is unequivocally evident that we must not engage in any kind of warfare anymore. We should establish a communication mechanism between Japan and China in order to avoid any sort of unexpected accidents that might eventually lead to a clash. In this context, I believe it is important for us to have a summit between Japan and China. With this belief, I said, as I keep saying, that my door for dialogue with China is always open.

Q: Do you see a possibility of a summit in the near future?

A: I would like to keep seeking a bilateral summit. I believe a summit would be very meaningful to ease the tension.

Q: Looking back at the past year, would you describe the objective of your assertive foreign policy strategy?

A: Japan, now the third-largest economy in the world, has been consistently implementing so-called peace diplomacy over the last 68 years, ever since the end of World War II. It has enormously contributed to global peace and prosperity. In spite of this fact, the presence of Japan is, we may have to admit, not so widely recognized in international society. This is partly because Japanese leaders' outreach was not adequate, and the tendency was exacerbated by the almost annual replacement of prime ministers, including myself.

     What I have found is when a Japanese leader visits a foreign country, the counterpart will listen to him very carefully.

     Now a lot of attention is paid to Japan's economic recovery, and I thought we should take advantage of this momentum to achieve a diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective around the globe. With this strategy in mind, I made 16 overseas trips and paid visits to 31 countries over these 13 months. And Japan is receiving more foreign guests because of their renewed interest in the way the economy has recovered. My summits with foreign leaders, including those over the phone, have exceeded 150 thus far.

     I have really come to the conclusion that direct talks between leaders go a long way to establishing personal relationships with trust.

Q: What is your outlook on the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, particularly in relation to bilateral U.S.-Japan talks?

A: As for the TPP, most participating countries -- especially the biggest economy in the world, the U.S., and Japan, the third largest -- are ready to make new economic ground rules in the Asia-Pacific region within this framework. Countries that share common values of liberty, democracy and rule of law are leading the way. I do fully understand the TPP's significance and, I believe, Japan and the U.S. should lead in this endeavor.

     Though Japan joined the TPP talks after other countries, Minister of State for Regulatory Reform Akira Amari, TPP Chief Negotiator Koji Tsuruoka and other staff have done a lot of hard work. Now Japan is playing a leading role in the negotiations. Of course, those negotiations are not so easy, since every participating country is defending its own national interests. Japan, however, is in the middle of the process and has close contact with the U.S., seeking common ground to accommodate all parties.

Q: You actively nurtured relationships with India, Russia and Australia, and invited U.S. President Barack Obama to Japan in April. What are the strategic goals here?

A: Last year I set up the National Security Council in the government of Japan, and last month I organized the National Security  Secretariat. At the NSC, we made Japan's first National Security Strategy. With its high transparency, I think the NSS makes clear Japan's security and foreign policy not only domestically but also internationally. Based upon this strategy, I will continue to conduct diplomacy around the world.

     Reflecting changes in the Asia-Pacific security environment, I would like to enhance not only our national interest but also the broader interests of the international community through Japan's contributions to many global agendas. I would like to deepen our collaboration with those nations that share fundamental values with us.

     In this context, my recent visit to India was quite fruitful. I believe that strengthening economic ties with India will benefit Japan, since relations between the two countries have great potential. In terms of security, I believe it is meaningful to conduct joint naval exercises between Japan, the U.S. and India. This amounts to a great development in terms of enhancing peace and stability in this region through cooperative networks of value-sharing nations.

     In Davos, I had the chance to have a short talk with Tony Abbott, prime minister of Australia, too. Australia has defined Japan as its best friend in Asia, and I hope we will deepen our cooperation not only economically but also in security policy as like-minded nations that share the same values.

     Of course, we think our alliance with the U.S. is the fundamental basis for Japan's foreign and security policy. I would like to enhance this alliance further. Naturally, I would like to enhance our relationships with neighboring countries as well. As I said earlier in this interview, the Japan-China relationship is one of the most important ties for Japan. Needless to say, South Korea is also a very important neighbor.

     I think it is also important to conduct so-called "Top Diplomacy" in the field of economy and trade. Last year, I visited all of the Gulf Cooperation Council member countries, and under my leadership we will see increasing exports of infrastructure into Asian markets. I believe this will contribute to Japan's economic growth.

Q: What is the agenda for Obama's visit?

A: I would like to take some time to form a concrete agenda. I believe we should jointly make it clear to the world that the Japan-U.S. alliance is unwavering. This is very important, not just for our two countries but for the sake of peace and prosperity in the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Q: You say revising the current constitution is your lifework. What is the political philosophy behind that?

A: A constitution represents a nation's framework and future. It has been more than 60 years since we introduced the current constitution, and during that time, the global landscape and environment has undergone tectonic shifts. We see some elements in our constitution that are not compatible with such changes and current conditions, both at home and abroad.

     We believe in keeping three basic principles of the current constitution -- namely, the sovereignty of the people, utmost respect for basic human rights and pacifism. To catch up with global changes, we should add some new human rights elements, with which we could strive to protect the environment as well as victims of crime.

     In addition, the constitution does not have any word on the Self-Defense Forces. This is not healthy for ensuring civilian control over the SDF. My party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has been advocating amending our constitution since its founding almost 60 years ago. I was not the first person to insist on amendments.

     Moreover, we have no intention of going back to our prewar militarism or becoming a military superpower again by amending the constitution, as some people misconstrue. Let me clearly reiterate that we never think that way. 

     There may be many criticisms of that sort, but you should recall the time when the Defense Agency transitioned to the Ministry of Defense. Around that time, there were similar criticisms. But today, you can see the current defense budget is smaller than the budget back then.

Interview conducted in Japanese