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Japan’s defence minister Taro Kono stands during an Enhanced Honour Cordon at the Pentagon in Washington on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

Japanese defence chief Taro Kono warns China over disputed islands: respect international norms or ‘pay the cost’

  • In speech at Washington think tank,Kono expresses concern over Beijing’s expanding military activities in region
  • Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit as Japan as a state guest next spring
Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kono on Tuesday urged Beijing to respect international norms and work toward addressing his country’s concerns over increasing Chinese maritime assertiveness ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan next spring.

Kono took aim at China during his speech at a think tank in Washington, where he has been visiting to meet with Defence Secretary Mark Esper to discuss the tense situation in the Middle East and other issues.

The minister said in the speech that Japan “cannot overlook” the frequent violation of its territorial waters around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea by Chinese government vessels. The islets are also claimed by Beijing, which calls them the Diaoyus.

Explained: Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute

While Japan plans to welcome Xi as a state guest this year, Kono said China needs to “work hard” to improve the situation, or “otherwise we may find a difficult environment for the visit.”

“International norms, such as freedom, democracy and legal order have been built up and maintained by the countries including Japan and the United States and others, overcoming difficulties. If China makes light of the international norms, they have to pay the cost,” he said at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

Later in the day, Kono met Esper at the Pentagon near Washington and the two agreed to cooperate in dealing with the situation in the Middle East, where Japan is sending a Self-Defence Forces vessel and patrol planes to help safeguard commercial shipping.

At a joint press conference with Kono, Esper said he appreciates Japan’s efforts and added: “We will continue to share information and cooperate on operations in the Middle East, as we work to promote freedom of navigation and freedom of commerce.”

Kono said he told Esper that Japan will make “persistent diplomatic efforts” to ease tensions and stabilise the situation in the region.

The SDF is assigned to gather information for the safety of Japanese shipping, although its area of operation will not include the Strait of Hormuz, a critical sea lane that borders Iran and through which around one-fifth of the world’s oil passes.

Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kono meets Admiral Philip Davidson, who heads the US Indo-Pacific Command, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu on Monday. Photo: Kyodo

Sending the SDF overseas has often been controversial for Japan, which places various limits on the use of weapons and force in light of its pacifist post-World War II Constitution. But Japan, which heavily relies on the Middle East for crude oil supplies, has decided on the latest dispatch amid calls from the United States that Tokyo should also play a role in protecting ships.

Kono noted that the SDF will operate separately from the US-led maritime coalition to ensure safety of key waterways in the Middle East. The decision has been taken in consideration of the long-standing friendly relations between Japan and Iran.

If China makes light of the international norms, they have to pay the cost
Taro Kono

On North Korea, the two affirmed that ballistic missile launches pose a “serious threat” to the region and confirmed the importance of the full implementation of UN Security Council resolutions for a “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, Kono said.

While uncertainties linger over whether North Korea will resort to major military provocations amid stalled denuclearisation talks with the United States, Esper said the US military remains “ready to fight tonight if necessary”.

But he emphasised that the United States still believes that “the best path forward is through a diplomatic solution that results in the denuclearisation of North Korea”.

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The two did not discuss the burden-sharing issue regarding the cost to host US forces stationed in Japan, with Kono telling reporters that it is too early to start the negotiations.

Japan’s so-called host-nation support, which totals nearly 200 billion yen (US$1.8 billion) annually, covers costs for base workers, utilities and other items. The current five-year payment agreement is set to expire after March 2021.

US President Donald Trump has indicated that Japan and South Korea should shoulder more costs as they are protected by US forces stationed in their countries.

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