Japan cautious about a North Korea agreement, remains concerned about China challenge

Brussels / Tokyo / Osaka, 25 June 2018 - Japan will support the efforts by US President Donald Trump to negotiate a denuclearisation of North Korea but will continue to pursue a cautious approach toward the regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), a delegation of NATO Parliamentarians was told during a recent visit to Japan. Tokyo is also directly threatened by the DRPK’s ballistic missiles and its biological and chemical weapons.  

Japanese interlocutors stressed that Japan is facing a set of different challenges. These include North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the rise of China, and threats to the global trading system. The latter have been exacerbated by the US withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement and the tariffs that the United States administration has announced on steel and aluminum. Both Japanese officials and independent experts expressed concern that the United States under the current administration have retreated from leading on some of the issues which have been so important to building global stability, including trade. However, few interlocutors said they believed that the United States would withdraw from its security commitments in East Asia. 

North Korea, particularly its nuclear and missile programmes, poses an immediate threat to Japan. Host country speakers expressed the hope that the recent meeting between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore represents perhaps a big step forward towards denuclearisation. A foreign ministry official attributed the DPRK’s willingness to negotiate also to Japan’s policy of “maximum pressure”. There was a general consensus that it will take considerable time and effort before the goal of a denuclearised North Korea can be achieved. 

Speakers further agreed that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) not only plays a crucial role in a negotiated settlement with the DPRK but for regional and indeed, global security. Official and independent speakers noted that China and Japan have very close economic relations, and there is a deeply anchored closeness of their cultures and a shared history with many fruitful contacts between the two countries. However, there is also considerable concern about the PRC’s increasingly assertive approach towards Japan and other countries in the region, apparent among others in Beijing’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas and its rapidly growing and opaque defence expenditures. Thus, several speakers considered China as the greatest long-term security concern. Russia has also built up its military presence in the region particularly on the disputed Northern Territories (Kuril Islands) which were occupied by Russia at the end of World War II but claimed by Japan.  The number of scrambles undertaken by the Japanese air force in response to provocative flights by China and Russia has increased significantly in recent years.  

Japan’s response to this challenging security environment is threefold, the delegation learned.  First, it is improving its defensive capabilities by various means, including by modernising its armed forces and by strengthening its missile defence. Second, Japan is actively working on strengthening the Japan-US alliance, which remains crucial not only for the country’s defence but for regional security and stability overall. Third, Japan is also deepening collaboration on shared security interests with other partners, such as Australia, South Korea, India, and ASEAN. This emphasis on multilateral security cooperation is also reflected in the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy", Tokyo’s new foreign policy strategy, NATO Parliamentarians were informed. 

In addition, Japan is interested in developing its partnership with NATO further, Tomohiro Yamamoto, State Minister of Defence, and other Japanese officials, underlined. To that end, Japan plans to upgrade its representation at NATO HQ by designating its embassy to Belgium as its Mission to NATO. Tokyo also wants to cooperate with NATO in the area of cyber security, host country interlocutors stressed.  Japan is NATO’s longest-standing partner outside Europe; it has supported a number of NATO operations in the past, including through funding development assistance and police training in Afghanistan and through participating in counter piracy drills off the coast of Somalia. 

On the economic front, the Japanese economy has begun to grow again, but there are important structural problems including a huge debt exceeding 200% of GNP. Moreover, the demographic challenge that the country is facing as a result of an aging population will increase the burden on public spending. 

Developments in the EU-Japan Strategic Partnership and the Bilateral Trade and Investment Partnership were discussed at the Representation of the European Union to Japan.  The visit concluded with briefings by Ichiro Matsui, Governor, and other representatives of the Osaka Prefectural Government on measures to prevent, prepare for, and respond to civil emergencies. The officials also provided in-depth information about the impact of the earthquake that hit the region of Osaka on 18 June, the beginning of the visit.   

The delegation consisted of the Assembly’s Sub-Committee on NATO Partnership (PCNP) and the Sub-Committee on Transatlantic Economic Relations (ESCTER). The group, comprising 28 parliamentarians from 13 NATO member countries, led by Metin Lütfi Baydar (Turkey), visited Tokyo and Osaka from 18 to 22 June 2018. The purpose of the visit was to obtain a comprehensive picture of the security environment in the region and Japan’s response to the challenges. During the visit, the delegation received in-depth briefings by senior officials from the Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs of Japan and engaged in an active dialogue with the Diet Members’ Council for Comprehensive Security (DMCCS). The Japanese Diet participates in the NATO PA as a parliamentary observer delegation. Discussions with independent experts at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation and the University of Kyoto rounded off the programme.