LIKE the Philippines, Japan also has major maritime issues with China.
Yet, Japanese Deputy Chief of Mission Takehiro Kano is not about to go gung- ho against our neighbors to the west.
Kano carried a pacifist disposition during our interview—the embodiment of the ideal Roosevelt-ian approach to diplomacy, which advises to “speak softly, but carry a big stick.”
We can perfectly understand Minister Kano’s attitude toward tranquility, as, for instance, his country suffered defeat in World War II.
So today, after Japan’s economic and military recovery, the deputy chief of mission admitted: “Japan continues to promote open and rules-based maritime order, even as tensions in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea [SCS/WPS] continue to rise in the face of the United States’s exercise of the freedom of navigation operations (Fonop) in the contested waters.”
He refused to be baited when challenged to express emotions against the former “sleeping giant,” who is now fully awake and seems to be strutting its economic and military might in the world stage.
Japan’s second highest official in the country openly reiterated his desire for general order in the region: “Every country should benefit from the order, in accordance with international law, and should enjoy freedom of navigation. That principle applies to every country like the US, China, Japan or [those in] Europe. They could do what they’re entitled to do.”
Kano’s statement about the Fonop came at a time when US B-52 bombers conducted transit operations in the strategic sea routes in September. This was followed by a near collision in the same general area between the two navies’ warships, while the US ship was sailing under the provisions of the Fonop as it sailed close to the China-claimed Gaven Reef in the disputed Spratly Islands.
According to the US Navy, the Chinese destroyer moved within 41 meters of the USS Decatur, as the two nearly collided.
Kano said Japan continues to enjoy its relations with the Philippines, as his country provides our Coast Guard with maritime patrol boats, particularly with five TC-model planes, 19 surveillance aircraft, 13 speedboats and 10 units of 40-meter long patrol boats.
“These have been already delivered, and the two big 90-meter-long patrol vessels that are in the design stage would be delivered in two years.” He added that these have already been committed.
THE minister is not a stranger to Philippine shores. An expert on maritime security, Kano said he had his briefing about our economic and security partnership while stationed in Tokyo 12 years ago. He was posted in the country only last summer.
Before that, he was in Europe and did not have much time to keep abreast of the developments here. He noted, though, that between 2012 and 2014, “the situation has changed a lot,” referring to the break in diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China, as we brought the latter before the International Tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, the Netherlands.
The country was then asking the jurors to limit China’s excessive territorial claim of the 3.5 million-sq-km SCS, as defined by its looping nine-dash line, encompassing 90 percent of the expansive body of water.
Eventually, the Philippines won the case, and China’s claim based on historic grounds was deemed illegal.
“We’re monitoring the situation. We support strengthening the rules-based international system that should govern the maritime order. That’s the longtime position we took and in that regard, as you know, Japan is now promoting the ‘fair and open’ Indo-Pacific strategy.”
The said strategy, first coined by an Indian military man, was promoted by Japanese Prime Minister (PM) Shinzo Abe, and lately has been adopted by President Donald J. Trump.
Originally a geographic concept that spans two regions of the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, the new term has changed the new strategic mind map since China’s “reform and opening up” in the 1980s.
“Asia Pacific” has shaped the image of a community of interests linking the US and East Asia. The term “Indo-Pacific,” as used by Trump, means that India, the US and other major democracies, especially Japan and Australia, will join in curbing China in the new framework of the growing “Cold War” influence.
Kano said Japan is now promoting the Indo-Pacific strategy “to strengthen the rules-based international order, including the maritime area, and enhance economic connectivity that benefits all the countries in the region.”
In that regard, he said his country is willing to support the capabilities of law enforcement of countries that share the same values. According to him, the Philippines is a model case, so to speak, thus Japan’s willingness to enhance our Coast Guard’s capability.
Kano claimed, “In the same vein, we’re also pleased to see our security cooperation and defense cooperation—including the transfer of airplanes and patrol boats.”
Asked whether Japan is bothered by China’s militarization of the seven features in the SCS/WPS, the minister said both Japan and the Philippines’s constitutions, including the United Nations Charter, “denounce war as a means of settling international disputes.”
However, Japan’s deputy chief of mission in the Philippines added that the said constitutions and charter “also prescribe that any nation should be able to defend themselves individually or collectively in accordance with international laws.”
“That’s a matter of principle, with or without amending constitutions. We should be able to support and strengthen international order, in collaboration with other countries—but it doesn’t mean we intend to exclude any other.”
Kano emphasized, “The international rules-based system and maritime order should prevail, and in that regard, Japan is now promoting the fair and open strategy.”
The minister, in the course of our interview, recalled the Fukuda Doctrine, which, although not official, “has becomes the foundation for Japan’s foreign policy.”
The Fukuda Doctrine, after the late PM Takeo Fukuda, is widely credited for inaugurating an era of positive and mutually beneficial engagement between Asean and Japan.
“The principle is still very fundamental and applicable. Japan would support and contribute to peace and stability by economic means, and not resorting to power.”
He went on to say, “We should also build not just for economic benefit, but ‘heart-to-heart’ relationship—a buzzword during one of Fukuda’s speeches.”
Under such, Japan rejected the role of a military power and resolved to contribute to the peace and prosperity of Southeast Asia through positive cooperation. It has committed itself to a relationship of mutual confidence, trust and heart-to-heart understanding within the region as it positioned itself as an equal partner of Asean and its member-countries.
IN the four decades since, Japan has emerged to become among the staunchest supporters of Asean centrality, unity, regional stability, connectivity and overall development.
The Asian superpower was the regional bloc’s second-largest trade partner in 2015 (valued at $ 239.4 billion in two-way trade), and accounted for 14.5 percent of total foreign direct investment inflows into Asean that year, with $17.4 billion.
On the economic front, Kano said Japan is pleased to see many infrastructure projects going on in Metro Manila.
“Hopefully, we could start groundbreaking before the start of ,” he said of the underground rail that would start in Quezon City, go through the Bonifacio Global City, and ultimately to the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
The country’s first-ever underground transportation—the Metro Manila Subway—is an underground rapid-transit line to be built initially starting this year, and is expected to be finished by 2025. The project is earmarked to cost P227 billion ($4.5 billion as of 2017). It is expected be the most expensive transport project under the Duterte administration.
Japan has expressed willingness to help cover the expenses of the subway, as it signed the first part of a ¥104.5-billion loan. Kano revealed his country is also working on the North-South Commuter Line connecting Malolos City in Bulacan to Tutuban in Manila, “and could go as far as Los Baños.”
Fully aware of the vehicular traffic in Metro Manila, the minister said, “Everybody knows the apparent need for public transportation [as a catalyst] for economic growth. It is Japan’s interest to see the Philippines as a strong and prosperous nation, [as your country is] a very important partner for us.”
IT used to be that some decades back, Japan was the top source of tourists for the country, but had since been overtaken by Korea.
Kano said Filipinos visiting Japan number about 42,000; but in the last two years, it shot up more than twofold at 85,000.
“That was due to the visa relaxation we implemented. We modernized and reformed the visa policy more appropriately for the current situation.”
Today, South Korea leads the pack of foreign visitors to the Philippines, followed by China and the US, with Japan as fourth. There were half-a-million Japanese tourists who visited the country last year, as the minister said there are “lots of potential by addressing the economic bottleneck, increased tourism potential and heightened people-to-people exchanges.”
At the moment, the Japanese diplomat said the relationship between his country and the Asean is “good,” and they are considering how much more it can enhance that relationship.
The envoy revealed that his country sees ours as “one of the most promising young nations with which Japan could enjoy a mutual and beneficial, complimentary relationship.”
“For that reason, we have in our interest to invest in public transportation and other infrastructures, which you also need, like subway commuter lines and airports. That would also enhance more businesses, economic opportunities and people-to-people exchanges.”
Kano said that in the last 40 years, Japan saw a lot of developments in exchanges between Manila and Tokyo. Both our countries have faced different kinds of challenges in the 1970s at the start of the Vietnam War, as well as the trouble in the Korean Peninsula some years prior.
Although he joined Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Mofa) in 1999, the youthful minister said there was an overall sense of euphoria following the end of the Cold War. It had a positive impact in Southeast Asia, as well as many Asian countries that were former members of the Communist bloc.
The minister said these countries started to study economic reforms and emulate the good examples of other Asean countries. At that time, he said he was in-charge of this region from Tokyo. Priority for Vietnamese relations with the US and Cambodia was to work for reconciliation, following the long conflict that ended when America left in 1975.
He said in 1997, the Asian financial crisis broke out “that had a huge impact in the region—economically and politically.” In its midst, “Japan was always with the Asean.”
Since the 1990s, after the crisis, Kano said he was on top of offshore development assistance, “and we launched various kinds of proposals, like the Miyazawa initiative that provided liquidity to some counties which had balance of payment that needed rescheduling.”
Constructive relationship with China
KANO’S analysis is that “today, we are also facing different kinds of challenges—particularly in the area of maritime security.”
“We saw the need of the Coast Guard to increase its capabilities. Since then, we are ready to see the correct quantity and quality of our cooperation.”
He said Japan’s Self Defense Force is participating in the joint exercises of the Philippines and US under “Balikatan” and “Commandant,” which occurred in October.
This author queried Kano: “How do you view China’s lack of transparency in its military buildup?” The former then added that as a perspective, economically, it has overtaken the US and in terms of military might, 10 or 15 years from now.
“Always, we should be cautious in making longtime predictions,” he warned. “If you recall, in the ‘bubble years’ of Japan in the 1980s and 1990s, there were lots of pundits that said we will overtake the US economically, and even militarily. That was not the case.”
As a practical advice, Kano said there is a need to look at the situation in China. He volunteered that, while many look from the outside and see some strong parts of the Chinese economy or society, “they may also have some fragilities which we may not know of.”
“I’d rather be very cautious on what kind of course China might take in the future; but in terms of the respective relationships between Japan and China, or Philippines and China, or US and China, I think all of us would be in the same page: That is, we need to have a constructive relationship with China.”
In addressing the situation in the SCS/WPS, the Japanese minister advises: “Any country should modify or calibrate their national defense policy, taking into account the security situation.”
He said that since 2013, Japan has published its first-ever national security strategy under Abe.
“I was in charge of those areas at the Mofa. The idea is that we have to adapt with the changing maritime security conditions.”
He justifies by saying that China has been a very important player in this region, “and we wish that it will [play a constructive role] in this region and in the international community.”
In Kano’s assessment, there are areas where we also benefit from the developments happening within the “Middle Kingdom.”
“Right now, China is the biggest trading partner of Japan, [while] we are still the biggest export destination for the Philippines,” he said.
“For the US too, China is a very important trading component, but that doesn’t mean we have no concerns about its trading behavior, particularly in terms of intellectual-property rights, nontariff barriers and its lack of transparency.”
“We need to raise these concerns to our Chinese colleagues, and that will be in their interest to reform their economic structures and trading practices.”
Current strategy, COC
KANO disclosed that another domain is cyberspace: “Given the advancement of technology, a lot of cybersecurity issues are now reported, [but] difficult to address.”
He explained that Japan had those in mind in its latest strategy. With that, their Ministry of Defense has a five-year defense guideline “as to the kinds of assets we need to have to equip our self-defense force.”
“It’s a mixture of assets and diplomatic policies. But overall, in the last two years in our current strategy, we have to do more with our traditional allies, which include the US, but also in partnership with other countries that share common values and interests.”
These countries could be those from Europe, Asia, and according to Abe, the ones comprising Asean—their natural, traditional partners like the Philippines.
In a final analysis, he said Japan, since August, had been monitoring the Code of Conduct (COC) situation. He said Japan is interested that the COC should not hinder the Fonops exercise.
“We hope the COC should be able to contribute to the peace and stability in the region and not affect the legitimate rights of other countries.”
Image credits: Jimbo Albano