View from Japan: NZ's role in maritime security

Hideshi Tokuchi worked for Japan’s defence ministry for more than three decades, was Japan’s first vice-minister of defence for international affairs from 2014-15. He is an expert on maritime security, crisis management at sea and maritime law enforcement. In September, he visited New Zealand for roundtables with academics and the government agencies. The Asia Media Centre interviewed him about recent security developments in Asia.

How do you see New Zealand’s role in regional security?

The role of New Zealand in regional security is a great one. Although people in New Zealand often say it is a small country, its role is not small. New Zealand is a maritime nation with a well-equipped, well-trained and well-disciplined military force.

Maritime security cooperation is one of the areas on which we have to focus. The role of New Zealand law enforcement agencies and the New Zealand Navy in maritime security in the Asia-Pacific is important.

Secondly, New Zealand is a mature democracy, so its democracy promotion is very important. Because of democracy’s affinity to the creeds of rule of law, transparency and accountability to the public, the promotion of democracy is very important for establishing a rules-based international order.

Also, New Zealand has been a big proponent of the TPP. The TPP would be an instrument necessary to prevent Southeast Asian countries’ economic over-dependence on China. Economically, New Zealand’s role in promoting multilateral trade is important.

Southeast Asian countries are reluctant to cooperate with the United States, and sometimes Japan, in maritime security because they are afraid of retaliation by China economically.

Hideshi Tokuchi2

Hideshi Tokuchi, Japan's former Vice-Minister of Defense for International Affairs. Photo: Asia Media Centre

What do you see as the urgent maritime security concerns in the Asia-Pacific?

There are many things we have to worry about with maritime security, particularly in the South China Sea.

First, China has not complied with the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration rendered on July 12 last year. Also, China’s law enforcement agencies’ operations are sometimes very violent and against the rule of proportionality. And, as clearly recognised by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea is against China’s obligation to protect marine environments. It damaged the coral, sea turtles and giant clams – it’s clearly written in the ruling.

We have to raise awareness of those violations and make China comply with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in good faith.

How is the current situation with North Korea affecting Japan’s security considerations?

Japan has been geographically exposed to the threat of North Korean missiles for a long time. However, there is a possibility that Japan will have saturated attacks ­– many, many missiles simultaneously. Japan’s missile defence system is, I believe, leak-proof but if North Korea launches many missiles against Japan, I’m not so sure that Japan’s missile defence system will be able to protect it.

There is a discussion already among the Japanese about how to improve Japan’s missile defence. Also, there is a policy discussion in Japan about having a counter-strike capability against the launching sites of North Korean missiles.

How does the discussion about changes to Japan’s pacifist constitution fit in? 

The change of the interpretation of the constitution, of course it is relevant to the security situation in general. But it’s a bit of a different issue. If you read the Japanese constitution in good faith, you can’t find any reference to Japan’s military forces as a means of military protection. I personally think the current political trend, particularly in the ruling LDP, is to specifically mention the existence of military defence forces in the language of the constitution. Even without the current threat posed by North Korea or China, it would be necessary. Of course, we can assume that the current acute situation of the security environment surrounding Japan will facilitate the debate.  

Former defence minister Shigeru Ishiba recently suggested that Japan look at changing its three non-nuclear principles [in which Japan pledges not to manufacture, possess, or permit the introduction of nuclear weapons]. Do you think there will be any change?

I don’t think the three principles will be changed. The issue right now is non-proliferation. If Japan is a nuclear power, that would be against the non-proliferation treaty, so it is not a solution. Most of the Japanese public are against Japanese nuclearisation.

At the same time, I don’t think the introduction of US nuclear weapons into Japan will be realised, partly because the US has a policy of NCND [neither confirm nor deny] for the existence of nuclear weapons. Also, because of the public sentiment, I don’t think it will happen. Although the point itself us a good one and it is worthy of discussion.

"If US military presence on the Korean peninsula is lost, it will affect the balance of power in Asia significantly."

Does South Korea’s view on nuclearisation differ to Japan’s?

According to public opinion polls, many people in South Korea are for nuclearisation. However, I don’t think the South Korean government has the same view.

South Korea, Japan and the US can cooperate for the denuclearisation of North Korea – that’s my belief. The most important thing is to have a common view about the future of the Korean peninsula  and also about the future of the US presence. The US military presence on the Korean peninsula is the only presence on the Asian continent. If US military presence on the Korean peninsula is lost, it will affect the balance of power in Asia significantly.

How is Japan’s relationship with South Korea generally?

I always say to my Korean friends that a dual-track approach is very important. Of course, managing the political and history issues between the two countries is a difficult issue, but those issues should not dominate the entire South Korea-Japan relationship. We have to proceed with security cooperation to address common threats. 

What about the relationship with the US?

I think the Japan-US security relationship has strong bipartisan support in the US. And I think a majority of Japanese people strongly support the alliance relationship, particularly when they are under the threat of North Korean missiles and China’s maritime advancement towards the East China Sea.

However, the economic and trade relationship between the two countries has a different aspect. What Trump kept saying on the presidential campaign trail was very similar to what everyday Americans kept saying in the 1970s and 1980s – the views expressed were somewhat old-fashioned. I’m not sure if he still has such views, but the trade relationship and economic relationship may have some ups and downs, so it is important to manage that relationship so it will not militarise against the security relationship.

You have just come from Australia. Were the issues discussed there different to what you’ve heard in New Zealand?

Geographically, Australia faces the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. So for the Australians, the concept of the Indo-Pacific is easier to swallow than for the Japanese. That’s my impression talking with people in New Zealand, too. As far as I’ve heard, I don’t think many people in this country share the concept of the Indo-Pacific. Of course, the role of India is very important, but the Indo-Pacific concept is not often used. Geography matters.

– Asia Media Centre