In early September, Foreign Policy spoke with Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera in his massive and faded office in Tokyo, under a map of the Korean Peninsula. But it's China that dominates: last week, the Japanese Defense Ministry reported it scrambled fighter jets in response to an unidentified drone, presumably Chinese, flying near Japanese airspace. It's just the latest provocation in the near-Cold War between Japan and China that started when the Japanese government agreed to buy a small cluster of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea from a private Japanese owner one year ago.
The purchase of the islands -- known as the Senkakus to the Japanese, which administers them, and the Diaoyus to the Chinese, which claims them -- set off a diplomatic firestorm. China erupted in massive anti-Japanese protests. Chinese ships now regularly intrude into the waters around the Senkakus; relations between the two countries remain worryingly tense.
The world's third-largest economy and a close ally of the United States, Japan has long been restricted from maintaining a formal military by its post-World War II constitution. But Japan's Self-Defense Forces and Coast Guard patrol the Senkakus for the country. "We have dealt with those intrusions peacefully, and I believe that the islands are effectively under Japan's control," Onodera said in interview.
Foreign Policy and Onodera discussed the possibility of using drones to guard the Senkakus, whether his country will get involved with U.S. efforts in Syria, and how the Edward Snowden affair played in Tokyo. The interview was conducted through an interpreter and has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Foreign Policy: What kind of commitment has the United States given to you in terms of defending the Senkakus if China attacks? And what kind of commitment would you like?
Itsunori Onodera: We don't have any assumptions that specific incidents will occur. But the area in and around the Senkakus is controlled by Japan, and the lands controlled by Japan are subject to the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty Article V [which states that "an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety"]. The United States and Japan have agreed in talks that the United States is obligated to fulfill Article 5 in case anything happens.
FP: If things were to go bad, what kind of support does Japan envision -- for example, boots on the ground?
IO: It's Japanese territory, so in principle we are to manage it by ourselves. But the Security Treaty states that at that time, the United States and Japan will deal with it jointly.
FP: Do you have any plans to use drones to defend or patrol remote islands like the Senkakus?
IO: We are considering how to conduct warning and surveillance activities, and drones are one of the options.
FP: What has the United States asked from Japan in regards to U.S. plans for Syria?
IO: Previously, we have provided Syria with various forms of support, including economic. Since the situation has recently become politically unstable, we have received a lot of information from many countries, not just the United States. At this stage, I'd like to decline to comment on what the United States has asked of Japan.
FP: Is there a worry that the United States' involvement in another Middle East war will distract the United States from its rebalancing to Asia?
IO: U.S. emphasis on Asia won't be changed. Although Syria is now the biggest issue, the rebalance, and the emphasis on Asia, is beneficial to the United States.
FP: What methods does the Defense Ministry have for communicating with the Chinese military?
IO: Until last September, we had chances to consult closely with each other. Since the Senkakus issue arose, however, there hasn't been an official talk between ministers, except for some exchange of administrative information.