TOKYO -- Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono struck a hawkish tone on China in remarks Wednesday, warning that Beijing may try to expand its maritime militarization to the East China Sea.
"When I was foreign minister, I was very careful in not saying China is a threat ... but as defense minister, I must say China has become a security threat to Japan," Kono told an online forum marking 60 years of the U.S.-Japan alliance, hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies and sponsored by Nikkei.
Kono, a graduate of Georgetown University who speaks English fluently, is a popular figure in Washington. He has not entered this month's race to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but is seen as a strong contender for next year's contest, when the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will let nationwide members vote for a leader.
Kono noted 177 incidents within a 90-day period this spring, when the Air Self-Defense Force scrambled against Chinese aircraft jets in Japanese airspace. In June, Kono made the unusual move of publicly identifying a Chinese sub that had ventured near Japanese territorial waters.
"We are prepared to defend every centimeter of our land, and I believe the alliance is willing to fight over the Senkaku Islands," he said on Wednesday night, referring to the Japanese-administered East China Sea islets that Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands.
If undefended, Kono warned, the Senkakus would follow the South China Sea in becoming militarized by China. "When China started reclaiming land, the international community didn't do anything to stop it, and see what we got," he said.
Kono's domestic approval ratings rose in June after the decision to cancel Japan's purchase of the Aegis Ashore missile shield from U.S. defense contractor Lockheed Martin. On Wednesday, Kono reiterated that the choice was based on concerns over discarded boosters hitting communities in Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures, where the system was to be installed.
Kono said Japan needs to support the growth of its own defense industry, first by relaxing Tokyo's weapons export controls that prevent the Ministry of Defense's suppliers from scaling up production.
"We need to think of a way to increase the quantity, probably through allowing them to export some kind of ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] system or radar or transport aircraft," he said. ISR systems are not normally considered weapons.
Kono, who said he was shocked by Abe's Aug. 28 resignation announcement, gave credit to the outgoing prime minister for an expansion of the Self-Defense Forces' overseas role and a marked improvement in relations with Washington.
"Under Prime Minister Abe our defense strategy has grown to be more realistic. We defend Japan ourselves," he said. But when it comes to imposing costs on China for violating international norms, "the United States alone cannot do it, and the U.S. and Japan alone cannot do it," he said, pointing to the Quad formed by the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.
As for the race to succeed Abe as leader of the LDP, Kono said he expects a cabinet reshuffle next week after the new prime minister is elected.
Kono said that with the Tokyo Olympics ahead in 2021, there is only a small window for the new prime minister to call a general election before the lower house term expires next year. He said that he expects the new prime minister to hold a snap election in October, predicting that the Japanese public will be casting their votes before Americans go to the polls on Nov. 3.