Interview

Spy Drones, Disputed Islands, and Diplomatic Firestorms

Japan's defense minister talks to Foreign Policy.

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.

FP: Did Edward Snowden's revelations [of U.S. cyber-espionage] affect the ministry's relationship with the United States at all?

IO: We don't have strong interest regarding that matter, but most Japanese have had an impression that their [the U.S.] way of collecting information is really thorough.

FP: Does Japan have that "thorough" method of collecting information too?

IO: We do it within the limit of law, and we are not doing it as extensively as the United States. Because the Internet is connected all around the world, there is no information only available to Japan. It should be also available to the United States. But I don't know what kind of method the United States is taking.

FP: On Aug. 30, the Defense Ministry announced it was seeking a 3 percent budget increase. How does Japan explain the rise of military cost to China? How do you justify that?

IO: To China? [Their budget] has quadrupled over [roughly] 10 years, so I'm not even sure whether we should call our 3 percent an "increase." Rather, it's sensible to say it's staying flat. If I were to add anything, because of the North Korean missile threat, we needed to strengthen our surveillance. The budget increase was just a necessary amount, not a big rise.

FP: How firm of a control does President Kim Jong Un have over North Korea?

IO: So far we haven't heard any criticism from North Koreans against him, and we consider that indicates his control of North Korea.

FP: If Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe succeeds in amending the constitution, is there a plan in place to communicate it to China beforehand, in order to alleviate tension?

IO: I think it's common for any countries to amend their constitutions, and it's unlikely that China would explain anything to Japan before they make a big change to their law. The Japanese Constitution states that Japan should not possess a military. But we regard the SDF [Self-Defense Forces] as a force to defend ourselves. Some are now arguing, "Why not solve that contradiction?"

FP: So SDF possibly contradicts the constitution -- so are you just amending the constitution to reach a new reality?

IO: That's the main point of our discussion. We have SDF for self-defense, while the constitution says we don't have a military. We can call it a matter of interpretation, as we have so far, or we could amend the constitution and come closer to reality.

FP: When was the last time an issue kept you awake all night?

IO: North Korea has made some statements that are intended to threaten Japan. My job is to prepare for an emergency, so this kind of worry sometimes keeps me awake all night.

I want to mention that the reason Japan allies with the United States and prepares its defense capability is that Japan wants to bring stability to Asia. A stable Asia would be economically beneficial to the United States. We want to stabilize Asia and make sure no problems will occur in the region. That will have a positive impact not only on the U.S. economy, but also the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean ones. Therefore, we are making efforts to maintain our security.

FP: Are there any misconceptions you see in the United States or China, regarding Japan's defense policy, that you would like to clear up?

IO: Japanese defense capability is intended only for the purpose of security and peace in the region. When we take any action, it is based on close discussion with the United States. As is stated in our constitution, we just defend ourselves and will never invade or go to war with other countries.

We have explained it to them, and they should have a good understanding of it.

YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Interview

The Pen and the Sword

Egypt's foremost novelist on revolution, dentistry, democracy, and why the Muslim Brotherhood is a "terroristic, underground, armed group."

CAIRO — A revolution, Egyptian novelist Alaa Al Aswany was fond of saying during the Arab Spring's heyday in 2011, was like being in love. "When you are in love, you become a much better person," he said. "And when you are in revolution, you become a much better person."

If one judges by recent events, many people here in the Egyptian capital seem to have fallen out of love. The convoy of Egypt’s interior minister was targeted by a bomb attack in Cairo today –- the first assassination attempt of a senior government official since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in February 2011. Even before the attack, Egypt was suffering through its bloodiest period yet: Security forces brutally suppressed a Muslim Brotherhood-led protest movement last month, resulting in the deaths of at least 900 people. And two and a half years after the revolution, there is not one elected official in a position of power in Cairo.

To Aswany, however, the revolution is still thriving. But instead of describing the current moment in romantic terms, this time the dentist turned novelist uses oral surgery as a reference point: "When you have an abscess, you must open it," he said. "And mostly, you don't use anesthesia, so you're going to have pain for a few seconds. And you're going to have very bad odor. And pus. But in the end you're going to recover. So what we're doing is opening the abscess of religious fascism in Egypt."

Aswany sits behind the desk in his office, alternating drags on a cigarette with sips of a small cup of Arabic coffee cradled by his large hands. The writer is a big, solidly built man -- he has likened the discipline of his craft to that of a boxer, but if he had desired he could have been the real thing. Over the past decade, a generation of Egyptian autocrats has suffered from his jabs: He was an implacable critic of Mubarak, writing blistering columns denouncing the former president for corruption, and his scathing criticism on live television of the first post-revolution prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, who had been appointed by Mubarak, resulted in the premier's quick resignation.

Aswany rose to fame following the 2002 publication of The Yacoubian Building, a beautiful, sweeping portrait of life in modern-day Cairo. The story revolves around the lives of residents in the once-proud, now-dilapidated building, exploring everything from the country's runaway urbanization to the rise of violent political Islamist movements to the fall of the country's colonial-era, Western-oriented elite. The novel also conjured up the "Patriotic Party" -- a thinly veiled stand-in for Mubarak's National Democratic Party -- and lampooned a corrupt politician, Kamal el Fouli, whose talents, he wrote, have been "diverted, distorted, and adulterated by lying, hypocrisy, and intrigue."

Such searing social criticism not only earned Aswany attention from Mubarak's security agents, but it garnered him international fame. In 2011, when Foreign Policy's Global Thinkers list paid tribute to the men and women who spearheaded the Arab Spring, Aswany and liberal politician Mohamed ElBaradei shared the top spot on the list. There were a lot of strange bedfellows back then: Aswany and ElBaradei, staunch opponents of Islamist rule, appeared side by side on the list with Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat El Shater and Yemeni activist Tawakkol Karman, who recently described ousted President Mohamed Morsy, a Brotherhood leader, as "the Arab world's Nelson Mandela."

Since that fleeting moment of revolutionary unity two years ago, the region's political protagonists have drifted off into warring camps. The attempted assassination of the interior minister will only increase that polarization -- while the perpetrators of the attack so far remains unknown, those opposed to the Brotherhood are likely to lay the blame at the feet of their Islamist rivals.

For Aswany, there is no doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood is public enemy No. 1 -- a force much more sinister than a mere political rival. "We have a political party -- the Muslim Brothers -- who are hiding underneath a terroristic, underground, armed group," he tells me, echoing the language of the present military-backed government in Cairo. "So the intervention of the Army was not to overthrow Morsy, but to protect the will of the people. And to protect the civil war from happening."

Aswany launches into a description of the Muslim Brotherhood's history: It was a terrorist movement from 1928 until 1965, he said, and assassinated the Egyptian prime minister in 1948. But then, starting in the 1970s, it claimed to have dedicated itself to peaceful change -- a ruse it was able to maintain, according to Aswany, until the June 30 protests against Morsy. "What we discover now is that they were lying to the Egyptian people," he said. "They have an underground, secret, armed fascist group, and people are well-trained."

This vision of the Brotherhood defines Aswany's perception of the current political crisis. He suggests a three-step program for handling the Islamist movement going forward:

First, he says, its leaders "should be brought to justice" for organizing terrorist attacks -- a step that he says has precedent in the prosecution of the militant left-wing Baader-Meinhof Group in Germany and the Basque separatist movement ETA in Spain. Second, the Egyptian Constitution must be rewritten to forbid any political parties based on religion. And third, he says, spreading his open hands wide, any Muslim Brotherhood members who did not commit violence and who pledge not to mix religion and politics should be welcomed back into the political process. It's a tall order for a group whose slogan has long been "Islam is the solution."

Aswany describes the July 3 military ouster of Morsy as "absolutely legal and absolutely democratic," arguing that the protests against the president amounted to a popular withdrawal of confidence. He castigated Barack Obama for not realizing this fact -- in his eyes, the U.S. president's support for the Muslim Brotherhood replicates America's long betrayal of the Egyptian people through its support of Mubarak. Washington, he says, turned a blind eye to Morsy's abuses: In January, when Egyptian police cracked down on an insurrection in the city of Port Said, Aswany noted that Secretary of State John Kerry "was visiting Cairo -- interestingly."

The American silence on Morsy's missteps -- from the Port Said violence to his November 2012 constitutional declaration granting himself sweeping powers -- speaks volumes for Aswany. "If I was Mr. Obama, I would fire all my specialists of the Middle East and try to get more intelligent people," he says.

Even as Egypt's security forces expanded the recent wave of arrests beyond Islamists, Aswany remained confident that the military was setting the country on the path of democracy. He has met the Army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, twice -- once after Aswany was given a "friendly invitation" to appear at the military intelligence headquarters to discuss a critical article he had written about the country's military ruler at the time, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. Aswany said that he criticized the military junta for three and a half hours, "and many times I had the impression that despite the fact [Sisi] didn't say so, I had the impression that he saw my point. At the end, the atmosphere got really friendly."

Despite the trust Aswany places in Sisi -- he refers to Sisi as a "hero" -- the novelist says he would never vote for a former general as president. And he bats aside the suggestion that Egypt could once again fall under the jackboot of the military. "I believe in the people, and I believe in the revolution," he says. "When you have this will, I don't think anybody will be able to make a dictatorship in Egypt anymore."

Aswany's fiction, though, tells a different story. In The Yacoubian Building, the corrupt regime politician, Kamal el Fouli, lectures an underling as he prepares to rig a parliamentary election in his favor. "The Egyptians are the easiest people in the world to rule," he says. "The moment you take power, they submit to you and grovel to you and you can do what you want with them. Any party in Egypt, when it makes elections and is in power, is bound to win, because the Egyptian is bound to support the government. It's just the way God made him."

There must be some part of the writer who penned those lines, one suspects, who knows that the latest chapter in Egypt's drama may not have a happy ending.

EPA/AMEL PAIN