Interview with Ambassador H.E. Mitsuo Sakaba

Advisor to the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies (JFSS), and honorary ambassador of Japan to the kingdom of Belgium and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Ambassador Mitsuo Sakaba, advisor to the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan in 1973, after graduating from the Yokohama City University with a major in European history. He filled several posts in the Ministry before being appointed ambassador to Vietnam and subsequently to Belgium. Upon his retirement in 2014 he was appointed professor at Yokohama City University, teaching subjects related to international politics. Presently, he is a member of the Public Security Assessment Commission of the Japanese Government, as well as advisor to JFSS.

As ambassador Sakaba noted in his keynote speech at the Seminar on “Northeast Asia’s Security Environment — Focusing on the Rule of Law and the Regional Order,” held in Brussels on the 22nd of February 2019, Japan has been increasingly concerned about the growing tensions in the Asia Pacific Region, as are Australia and India, in view of the assertive conduct of China both on land and on the seas. Suspecting that Europe is no longer involved in the strong network that has been shaping up around this issue, he wishes to share his insights and provide transparent information about the real present situation. He believes it is vital to involve Europe, because it can play an important role as an opinion leader in the world.

As the Tokyo-based think tank JFSS shares the same concerns as the Europeans, academics and experts from Europe and the USA were brought together in Brussels on 22nd February with the aim of exchanging views to better understand the rising tensions in the Asia Pacific Region, as well as to discuss possible options for improving the conditions for peace in the area and the world at large.

Ambassador Sakaba pointed out a number of disturbing policies initiated by Chinese president Ji Xiping, which are likely to put heavy strains on the status-quo: the extension of the Baikal Road into China, the Belt and Road Initiative, infrastructural investments for example in the Asia Investment Bank, as well as the many platforms (for gas and oil extraction) in the South China Sea that have been built during the last 5 years, on top of the claims China lays to Japanese territory in the Senkaku Islands, not to mention the resulting obstruction of the free trade passage through open sea in the area. China is also building warships to be stationed within this area.

Nevertheless, Japan hopes that China will recognize that the rest of the world is not welcoming this string of excessively assertive policies and will agree to solve the situation with Japan and the other countries in the area (Australia, India, etc.) in a calm, friendly, positive, step-by-step approach.

This hope is also one of the reasons why Japan, together with its allies in the region, including Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos etc., is seeking Europe’s support in its efforts to build a positive engagement with China, by giving more prominence to this issue in the formulation of Europe’s foreign policy, and by joining in talks with China that have a bearing on the reduction of tensions.

It is vital that China shows restraint and does not try to forcibly change the international order by deploying huge military forces everywhere, and making light of international law, an attitude which cannot fail to make Japan and its allies feel even more threatened. The rule of law should be respected everywhere in the world, also by China, is what it boils down to, Ambassador Sakaba said.

To the question of how Japan will try to lower the tensions, Ambassador Sakaba replied that this was a process that would take time and persistence, as the Ji Xiping leadership has articulated a long-term vision on creating a new world order under China’s leadership as the ‘new super power’ and is prepared and able to pursue this path for a very long time. China has passed the phase of economic growth through just doing business and is now ready to use threat and pressure to reach its goal. Therefore, as a counterexample, Japan is helping Sri Lanka to build a railway structure, providing it with low interest loans that will only have to be paid back if the recipient country is able to do so without jeopardizing its own future.

Japan furthermore actively supports free trade agreements, such as for example the one signed with the European Union last February, and it has also done so with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Transpacific Partnership (CPTPP) (eleven countries and the USA). It has also done its best to involve China, Korea and India in the framework of the sixteen countries that take part in the RCEP Asia ‘Regional Comprehensive Economical Partnership’, engaging in free trade relations with these countries as much as possible. Because it is Japan’s strong belief that countries all over the world can benefit from such an approach.

Japan is also prepared to share its rich cultural heritage, often protected at the cost of huge financial efforts, in heritage sites, time-honoured customs, traditional songs, theatre, dances etc., as well as its technology, its medical research and the pharmaceutical cooperation it has with both the EU and the USA. Scientific cooperation as such in all areas has always been one of the ways Japan has contributed to welfare and well-being in the broadest meaning of the word and therefore peaceful relationships all over.

A good example of these efforts is the Tokyo protocol on the climate, which Japan refused to prolong because of the lack of engagement from China, India and the USA, but it supports strongly the Paris Climate Agreement and hopes to push the big players further in their efforts to contribute to the preservation of the planet.

Christine Vertente