Member of the House of Representatives Katsuyuki Kawai has served in several diplomacy-focused positions since his first successful political campaign in 1996, and today he supports Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) special advisor to the president for foreign affairs. His personal network includes members of the United States Congress and think-tanks in Washington, D.C., including Steve Bannon, who played a leading role in President Donald Trump’s victory. Toshio Motoya spoke with Kawai about how the U.S. sees the current situation in East Asia and the ideal future state of Japan.
(M) Thank you for joining me today on Big Talk, and thank you as well for your assistance when Steve Bannon (former White House chief strategist and senior counselor to the president) visited Japan in March.
(K) Thank you for inviting me. I went to Washington, D.C. for one week on August 21, where I met with Bannon again and was introduced to important figures in the Donald Trump camp.
(M) You are the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) special advisor to the president for foreign affairs. Although you are not a member of the administration, you support Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is party president.
(K) Yes, that’s right. This September marks seven years since Abe became LDP president for a second time. The LDP regained political power right after that, and Abe is on track to become the longest serving prime minister since the Meiji Restoration if you include his first term. The Japanese government is exceedingly stable today. I am learning about diplomacy and national security at the prime minister’s side. Abe has solid views of the nation and history, upon which he bases his highly strategic, three-dimensional thinking. Thanks to this leader, Japan’s diplomacy is very highly evaluated today. An example is the Japan-U.S. trade negotiations. A general agreement was made at the G7 summit with Trump and Abe in August. Trump stated he and Abe would sign the agreement by the end of September, which is unprecedent speed. I’m sure the admirative staff is having a very difficult time making these arrangements, but I think it will be achieved since it has been declared so boldly. Although the details have yet to be announced, this is Japan’s first strategic success in commerce negotiations. The U.S. initially insisted on expanding exports of agricultural products to the Japanese market, but it ended up agreeing to conform to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) level. I think this is a clear victory for Japan.
(M) Abe is the only leader Trump is friendly with both officially and personally. I wonder if they had a trusting relationship as individuals.
(K) I think so. Trump refers to himself as a genius in making “deals,” and he is a formidable enemy when it comes to negotiating. Abe made calculated preparations so Trump would have to accept Japan’s requests, one of which was TPP-11. At first there were 12 participating countries including the U.S, and Japan was the last to join. Despite this, Japan successfully led the TPP without the U.S. Another example is the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the European Union (EU), although the Japanese media does not evaluate this very positively. The U.S. feared it would be left behind while many agricultural products from different regions were brought into Japan via the TPP and EPA with the EU. That’s how Japan was able to settle things in an advantageous way.
(M) I also think the agreement was hastened as a way to resist China’s One Belt, One Road initiative and expansion policy. Abe longs for a stronger Japanese-American relationship and can implement diplomacy with an overhead view of the globe. He immediately went to meet with Trump after the American election, which helped build trust between the two. Japan had an unstable government with a new prime minister every year, but Abe’s inauguration at a critical moment halted China’s headlong actions to make Japan into one of its autonomous regions. China is said to have a population of 1.4 billion. The Chinese Communist Party (CPC) numbers around 80 million, and 30 million of these members are exploiting the other hundreds of millions of people, enjoying luxurious lifestyles while sending their assets overseas so they can flee at any time. That’s the sort of country that is striving to gain control of the world. Just like during the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union, Japan must serve as a breakwater in the Sino-American cold war. For that reason, I think Trump and Abe shared a common will to quickly agree on the trade talks and strengthen the alliance.
(K) I think you’re right. Abe is always considering what Japan should do today to counter the Chinese threat, with a view to 50 years from now. He has a solid perception of the world, and he is aware that being “anti-Chinese” is not enough. China only believes in power – it doesn’t deal with countries with weak governments that are unpopular or bad at winning elections. The Abe administration is immensely stable because it has won six consecutive national elections, which is why Japan can talk with China on an equal footing.
(M) As you say, the Abe administration’s stability is one factor for the recently stable relationship with China.
(K) Your analysis of Trump is correct. He made many unprecedented statements as a presidential candidate during his campaign, such as saying the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty is unequal and stating that Japan should pay more for the U.S. Forces in Japan that are “wasting” American money. I was aide to the prime minister in foreign affairs when Trump won the 2016 election, and I visited Washington five times that year. The major Japanese and American media outlets reported that Hillary Clinton had the advantage, but Abe sensed something was off. Even when Trump’s approval rating fell after he made problematic statements, it returned to normal a week or 10 days later. This happened several times. Many Americans were actually longing for a leader like Trump. I was told to gather information on both the Democratic and Republican Parties so Abe was prepared for any situation. I was scheduled to fly to Washington the day after the election, but I was called to the prime minister’s office one hour before the Associated Press bulletined that Trump was projected to win. He gave me a special order, saying, “Trump’s victory is assured, so I want you to arrange for me to meet with him as soon as possible. Also, find out what kind of person he is.” When Abe met with Trump for the first time in November 2016, I was waiting at a Starbucks on the second floor of Trump Tower (laughs). Apparently, Abe gave Trump a short-term explanation about North Korea and information about China from a medium-to-long term perspective. Abe met promptly with Trump – who has no experience in public office or military service record – to give him a lecture about correct views of the world and the regional state of affairs.
(M) Trump became president at a great timing for Japan to oppose the Chinese threat. Mass protests are taking place in Hong Kong right now. When Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, the “one country, two systems” principle was determined for the next 50 years. People in the United Kingdom and Hong Kong assumed China would be democratized after 50 years, but in contrast it is maintaining a system of single-party rule as a major economic power. China is also stepping up its control over citizens, such as installing surveillance cameras and identifying people with facial recognition. The demonstrators in Hong Kong are protesting the extradition bill, but the true cause is their fear of being absorbed into China. Chinese President Xi Jinping is massing armed police officers to stifle rebellion in Hong Kong before the event celebrating the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China in October. If China uses military force to suppress these demonstrations, the next target will naturally be Taiwan. After, I think China’s spear would finally be turned to Japan. Hong Kong must be protected today to safeguard the futures of Taiwan and Japan. Xi has abolished the presidential term limit of two terms (10 years) and is making China into his own empire, with the goal of bringing Asia totally underneath Chinese control. To prevent this, the people of Asia must have a shared recognition that supporting Hong Kong is a way to protect themselves.
(K) American senators share the same views on the Hong Kong issue, regardless of their political leanings, from Republican Marco Rubio on the far right to liberal Democrats Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Elizabeth Warren, and even the far-left Bernie Sanders. They are keeping a close eye on the situation with a strong sense of danger and concern that it will become a second Tiananmen Square. Trump warned China behind the scenes that the U.S. would band together, from the right to the left, if China has started suppressing the protestors, such as by deploying armed police offers. However, I don’t think Xi has gotten the message. For that reason, in August Trump put pressure on China by purposefully declaring that Xi is a great leader who can peacefully resolve the situation. According to Bannon, Trump is the first president to make such a clear statement naming a Chinese leader over the past 30 years, something neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush did. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party has seen her approval rating rise because young Taiwanese are highly concerned the Hong Kong issue. The Taiwanese presidential election will take place next January. When I met with Tsai this January in Taipei, her approval rating had fallen considerately and people were saying she would likely lose. I think this pronounced anti-Chinese sentiment in Taiwan will have big impacts on other Asian countries as well.
(M) I agree.
(K) People are saying Trump is going to bring up the oppression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China next. No other president has done so.
(M) China is using facial recognition systems to surveille its citizens and immediately detain those who attend meetings of any sort. This oppression is on an extremely large scale, and apparently one or two million Uyghurs have been interned in camps. The Chinese government is taking authoritarian steps to eliminate anyone who could hinder Xi’s empire-building, such as Falun Gong members and Christians. If we allow this, I think China will rapidly expand outward and utilize its huge population to the maximum degree in a bid for global hegemony. Japan must work closely with the U.S. to stop this. The U.S. started an armaments race with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and the Soviet Union collapsed when it couldn’t keep up in the economic realm. But China has economic power, so that wouldn’t work today.
(K) You point out some very important factors. To avoid being swallowed up by the massive China, we will need strong diplomacy, powerful defense capabilities, and enough economic strength to uphold these over the mid-to-long term. That’s why Abe has done great things over the past seven years, including his successful Abenomics policies, efforts focused on foreign relations, and commerce talks as previously mentioned.
(M) However, the biggest thing standing in the way of the Japanese-American ability to oppose China is our shrinking population. During the occupation after World War II, the U.S. enacted policy to destroy Japan’s traditional extended-family system and encourage nuclear families, which I think led to our falling birthrate and ageing population of today. And because of our educational system that emphasizes test scores and rankings, more students go to Tokyo universities, which divides families and is a huge economic burden on households. First, we must revive the extended family. Large families make it possible to pass down wisdom over multiple generations, and family members can help each other with childcare and caregiving. This allows parents to raise children with peace of mind. Large households also have lower costs and more affluent lifestyles. I think dying alone is the saddest thing that can happen to a human being. These deaths are increasing in Tokyo, and we must do something to stop this trend. The government should enact policies to encourage extended-family living. For instance, we could give assistance to families of three generations living together, or reduce property taxes for large homes where they can reside. Some people suggest immigration as a way to cope with the declining population. Well-planned, small-scale immigration is one thing, but I am against allowing many immigrants into the country in a haphazard way, as this leads to social instability. The best solution is to raise the birthrate, and the extended family would be effective to that end. I also feel we must ensure that rural universities have unique, appealing features beyond test score-based rankings.
(K) Anri Kawai, my wife, made similar campaign promises when she ran in the House of Councillors election this summer. Huge American IT companies are all located in smaller cities rather than New York or other metropolises, which allows employees to enjoy more relaxed, affluent lifestyles. Japanese society takes a positive view of companies from other regions that open up headquarters in Tokyo, which is the opposite of the thinking in the U.S. Anri said she wants to build an environment in which regions can feel pride in their histories and traditions, open many fantastic universities, and cultivate many companies.
(M) Anri won the election. Congratulations!
(K) Thank you. Speaking of university reform, we need to enact various policies to induce change. First, a law was passed in 2018 that in principle prohibits larger capacities at and the building of new private universities in the 23 wards of Tokyo for the next 10 years. I think people will come to see this positively.
(M) Besides universities, it will be extremely difficult to curtail the overconcentration of corporations in Tokyo. APA Group moved from Kanazawa to Tokyo and then grew our business all at once. In reality, it is challenging for companies to do nationwide business from other areas. I think we should consider Tokyo as a broader metropolitan area beyond the 23 wards, including Chiba, Saitama, and other neighboring prefectures. This is probably more pragmatic than suggesting companies suddenly consider locations in Hokkaido or Kyushu.
(K) It’s certainly true that more companies are being concentrated in Tokyo, in contrast to the previous thinking that the Internet would banish disparities between Tokyo and other regions. Resolving this heavy concentration will likely be difficult unless the central government devotes sufficient funding to policies that fully meet its objectives, including taxation. I think the goal would be to vitalize regions outside of Tokyo so you could move your main office back to Kanazawa if you wanted to.
(M) I agree. Another issue is the speed of policy execution. A great deal of time was required to build Shinkansen lines from Tokyo to Kanazawa, and it will take even more time to connect to Osaka in the future. People consider living in rural areas only if they have good transportation networks. There is a fairly large number of rural airports, but we must build an extensive high-speed railway network across Japan with a large transportation capacity. China constructed high-speed railways in an extremely short period of time. We must learn from that, and the national government should also implement policies and make arrangements so lots of people can understand the benefits of bringing universities and companies to other regions.
(K) Yes, that’s right.
(M) I hope Abe will be able to serve four terms as LDP president so these policies can be enacted. Trump avoided being impeached about the Russia allegations, so I think he is sure to be re-elected. Trump would be in office until 2024, and Abe would also be prime minister until 2024 if he can have a fourth term. In the next five years, he should first revise the constitution to add a clear statement about the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). This would show people that constitutional change is possible. In the second phase, he should take measures such as removing the second paragraph of Article 9 to make the JSDF into a military and transform Japan into a country that can protect itself, both in name and substance. If not, I think the currently strained Japanese-South Korean relationship will also change significantly.
(K) In late August, South Korea unilaterally terminated the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan. Many high American government officials and think-tank researchers believe Chinese influence was present in the background to this, since China’s consistent policy is to weaken relationships between the U.S. and East Asian allies. Bannon stated the CPC must have ordered this termination. Some also feel it is a warning showing the degree to which China has penetrated the South Korean government, as evidenced by the GSOMIA between South Korea and Thailand, which was announced in early September right after the termination with Japan. Thailand is being strongly influenced by China in recent years. The Chinese navy held an international naval review in Qingdao in April 2019. The Royal Thai Navy produced a video giving high praise of Xi, which was broadcast at the ceremony. The U.S. sees the GSOMIA termination as a sword aimed by South Korea at the U.S., not at Japan. The GSOMIA was originally concluded in 2016, and required a lot of time for negotiations. It was finally achieved with a great deal of American assistance and advice. Accordingly, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, National Security Advisor John R. Bolton, and others asked in public for the Japanese-South Korean GSOMIA to be extended, yet South Korea decided to end it anyway. Moreover, this was announced at the timing when Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun was staying in Seoul. The U.S. is increasingly suspicious that these actions signify South Korea is separating itself from the liberalism camp and turning towards the Chinese one. This would mean the Military Demarcation Line (38th Parallel) stretches to the Tsushima Strait, a nightmare for Japan.
(M) China prohibited group tours to South Korea in March 2017 to protest the U.S. Forces Korea deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. This was a major shock to the South Korean economy, and I think that’s one reason South Korea is turning away from Japan and being friendly to Thailand as a way to make up with China. I feel like I can hear China’s footsteps as it comes closer to Japan. Xi and North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un have developed a friendly relationship – and are visiting each other in Beijing and Pyongyang – because North Korea successfully developed nuclear weapons and gained the capability to defend itself. North Korea is repeatedly testing short-range ballistic missiles lately, and I think these weapons were created to oppose China. Japan must have deterrence in this state of affairs. We should first abolish the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, revise the constitution, and conclude a nuclear sharing agreement with the U.S. (like its arrangement with four North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] countries). We will need all of these things, and also to make the JSDF into a military, to avoid being swallowed up by China. But at the same time, I wonder if China’s current system will eventually fall apart…
(K) China’s working-age population is peaking, and will decline rapidly going forward. Its economic strength will certainly decrease gradually. The question is, can Japan withstand this?
(M) The Soviet Union collapsed 74 years after its founding. The PRC was established in 1949, and 2023 marks its 74th anniversary. In one of my past essays, I suggested this might be China’s limit. If the Chinese economy dwindles, it’s possible that people may increasingly turn against the government, and the country may collapse from the inside. That is another reason why nearby nations must help protect Hong Kong. Also, Abe should serve a fourth term so he can revise the constitution twice. I look forward to seeing you play an active role in this. At the end of the interview, I always ask for a “word for the youth.”
(K) I hope young people will go overseas, see, and think while they are young, like you did. The world is big and life is short.
(M) I agree entirely. Thank you for joining me today.
Date of dialogue: September 5, 2019
Born in Hiroshima in 1963. Graduated from the Department of Politics, Faculty of Law, Keio University in 1985, then entered The Matsushita Institute of Government and Management as a member of the sixth class. After working as an international administrative trainee at the Office of Management and Budget in Dayton, Ohio, the United States, he was elected to the Hiroshima Prefectural Assembly for the first time in 1991 and to the House of Representatives seven times, starting in 1996. Kawai has served in positions including parliamentary vice-minister for foreign affairs, state minister of justice, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and aide to the prime minister. He was appointed special advisor for foreign affairs to the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president in 2017.