Thursday, February 6, 2014

Abe wants China to cool down and talk: NAR exclusive

The world's third-largest economy, Japan, and a rising China look to many to be on a collision course.The international community is increasingly concerned.

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

     Beijing has been vocal in its claims that a conflict between China and Japan would be due solely to Tokyo's provocative actions. But in a recent exclusive interview with the Nikkei Asian Review, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated his conviction that his country has no intention of sparking conflict with China.

Dangerous waters    

"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," Abe said. "Moreover, let me state clearly that, as a matter of reality, the two countries could never clash. We must not let that happen."

     He said that despite the strong rhetoric coming from China, "I believe this conviction is shared by Chinese leaders."

     Abe called for resetting relations by going back to the Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests between Japan and China, which he agreed on with China's then-leaders when he was prime minister in 2006. He said the countries should focus on enhancing ties and avoid letting disagreements on particular issues damage the entire relationship.

     While he is keen to mend ties, when it comes to the territorial dispute, the prime minister is unequivocal. "With regard to the Senkaku Islands, history and international law show that they are clearly and inherently Japanese territory," Abe said.

     While China has increasingly dispatched its vessels to waters around the islands, and last November unilaterally declared its own air defense identification zone, "Japan has responded in a calm manner," Abe said.

     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.

     "Such actions are extremely dangerous because, at some point, they could trigger unpredictable consequences," the prime minister said. He added that Japan has reacted calmly to the provocations and will "keep that stance."

     Abe said reducing unnecessary misunderstandings on both sides is key to avoiding "unexpected situations."

     "The need for a communication mechanism between Japanese and Chinese defense authorities is more pressing than ever," he said.

     Abe said that in his 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." He said that while China has not yet implemented this agreement, he will continue to "sincerely urge" China to agree to do so.

     At the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Abe said he "tried to emphasize that what Asia really needs for peace and prosperity is not military power or intimidation but dialogue and rule of law." He said he wanted to make it clear that in order to avert any kind of warfare, "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. ... I believe it is important for us to have a summit between Japan and China. With this belief, I said (in Davos), as I keep saying, that my door for dialogue with China is always open."

Reaching out to the world    

Abe's foreign policy strategy over the past year has been described by some as "assertive." The prime minister said he is simply trying to raise Japan's international profile, which is out of step with its economic clout. "This is partly because Japanese leaders' outreach was not adequate, and this tendency was exacerbated by the almost annual replacement of prime ministers, including myself," said Abe.

     He said this may be changing, however. "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," the prime minister said. Abe pointed out that he has made 16 overseas trips and visited 31 countries over the past 13 months, and has held 150 summits with foreign leaders, including those over the phone.

     Abe has actively nurtured relationships with India, Russia and Australia, and invited U.S. President Barack Obama to Japan in April. He said he will continue this diplomatic push.

     He said that in response to changes in the Asia-Pacific security environment, he wants to "deepen our collaboration with those nations that share fundamental values with us."

     "In this context, my recent visit to India was quite fruitful," Abe said. "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."

     Abe called Japan's alliance with the U.S. "the fundamental basis for Japan's foreign and security policy" and said he wants to further enhance ties. But he also stressed the importance of healthy ties with neighbors China and South Korea.

     "I think it is also important to conduct so-called "Top Diplomacy" in the field of economy and trade," Abe said. "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."

Upbeat on TPP

On the trade front, Abe has big hopes for the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations.

     "I fully understand the TPP's significance and I believe Japan and the U.S. should lead in this endeavor," said the prime minister.  He said the world's largest and third-largest economies are ready to make new economic ground rules in the Asia-Pacific region within this framework, and that "countries that share common values of liberty, democracy and rule of law are leading the way."

     Abe said that while Japan came to the negotiating table later than some other countries, it is playing a leading role in the talks. He said it is tough-going, given that every participating country is defending its own national interests. But he expressed optimism about the progress. "Japan ... is in the middle of the process and has close contact with the U.S., seeking common ground to accommodate all parties," Abe said.

     There has been significant international interest in Abenomics and the "third arrow" of the prime minister's economic policy mix. Much of the focus at Davos, Abe said, was whether the prime minister will continue pushing for deeper reforms.

     "As you know, Japan has been tackling deregulation, but there are areas that remain regulated," Abe said. "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."

     He said he also pledged at the conference to "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."

The full text of the interview is available in the Feb. 6 edition of our magazine, where it appeared under the headline "Seeking a new framework for dialogue with China."