] Japan’s new defense minister said the government is preparing to enhance its air and sea defense capabilities to protect islands and waters in the nation’s southwest, part of the broad swath of the western Pacific where China has increased its maritime activities in recent years.
“Japan has 6,800 islands, and territory that stretches over 3,300 kilometers [2,000 miles]; it’s necessary to have troops at its southwestern end to beef up our warning and surveillance capability,” Satoshi Morimoto told The Wall Street Journal on Monday in his first interview with a non-Japanese news organisation since he took office this month.
“We must defend without fail our sovereign rights and our land that includes the Senkaku islands,” he added, referring to a chain of islands also claimed by China, which calls them Diaoyu. “We must strengthen our overall defense capability in the southwest.”
Morimoto also said one of his priorities as defense minister is to push for policies that will strengthen the bilateral alliance with the US “The most important task for people who think about Japan’s national security and build its policy is making the alliance even more reliable,” he said.
Morimoto brings to the embattled government of prime minister Yoshihiko Noda a combination of a nonpolitical resume and first-class knowledge of national security that has generated rare excitement among the public. He also comes with unapologetically hawkish views on how Japan should protect itself amid rising geopolitical tensions in East Asia.
Tapping Morimoto was a gamble for Noda, who is struggling to pass a controversial tax bill in a divided parliament and facing a possible breakup of his own party.
Morimoto, 71 years old, has an unusual background for a Japanese cabinet minister. He isn’t an elected official and his unconventional career path included 14 years in uniform at the Air Self-Defense Force, a stint as a civilian foreign-service officer, and nearly two decades as a college professor.
His conservative views on defense issues are controversial. They are characterised by staunch support of the bilateral security alliance with the US and a hard-line stance toward Japan’s neighbours, namely China and North Korea.
As a frequent contributor to conservative daily the Sankei Shimbun, Morimoto described the 2010 Senkaku-Diaoyu spat as having uncovered “China’s unilateral, coercive and naked intention to expand its maritime rule.”
Calling for Japan’s Self-Defense Forces to assist allied troops during the Iraq war in 2003, he said the Japanese owed their “prosperous and stable livelihoods to the US-Japan alliance.” Some had criticised such cooperation, saying it would violate Japan’s so-called postwar peace constitution, which restricts the use of military forces abroad, but Morimoto insisted the alternative would be worse: “Those who want to ditch the alliance should realise the alternative would be rearming ourselves, and doing so with nuclear weapons.”
Such views are in contrast to those presented by leaders of Noda’s Democratic Party of Japan when it came to power in 2009, promising closer ties with China and moving an unpopular US base off Okinawa, hub of the US military presence in Japan.
Morimoto had served briefly as a national-security adviser to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party before the LDP was ousted by the DPJ’s election win.
Noda’s choice of Morimoto – after two consecutive defense ministers were forced out over gaffes and missteps since Noda took office last September – appears to be paying off. In an opinion poll published by the Nihon Keisai Shimbun daily on Monday, 54 percent of those surveyed supported Morimoto’s appointment, compared with 24 percent who opposed it.
Since becoming defense chief, Morimoto has toned down his rhetoric. Although he stressed that the Senkaku islands are “Japan’s unique territory, from both historical and legal perspectives,” he described in the interview on Monday China’s recent response to the new tension over the islands as “very well-restrained.”
The minister also said some friction with China is inevitable “as our national interest are different,” but he added: “I believe it’s extremely important Japan and China improve our mutual cooperation and understanding, and play our respective roles to stabilise the maritime environment in this region.”
To prepare Tokyo’s troops for new challenges, he said Japan is negotiating with Washington to have the soldiers of its army, known as the Ground Self-Defense Forces, trained for island defense by US Marines stationed on Okinawa.
The continuing realignment of US troops in Japan, he added, creates opportunities to increase bilateral cooperation and strengthen Japan’s defense power through the shared use of US bases in Okinawa and the building of joint training facilities.
“The Japan-US alliance has evolved over time, but what hasn’t changed fundamentally, and what will not change, is the fact that the alliance plays an extremely important role in promoting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” Morimoto said. “The most important task for people who think about Japan’s national security and build its policy is making the alliance even more reliable.” -By YUKA HAYASHI