Japan needs to constantly examine the contents of its official development assistance, but a large-scale reduction in ODA spending could jeopardize relations with Asian countries, Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said Wednesday.

Kono, who was reappointed Tuesday to the post that he has held since October 1999, said Japan’s ODA has played “a major role” in helping develop Asian countries.

“We should recognize the (positive) effect of the ODA and think of meaningful ways to use taxpayers’ money,” Kono said in an interview with The Japan Times.

The ruling coalition is considering cutting Japan’s ODA in the fiscal 2001 budget in light of the nation’s tight financial situation. Shizuka Kamei, top policy chief of the Liberal Democratic Party, has proposed that ODA be cut by as much as 30 percent.

“It is extremely dangerous for Japan’s policy to become inward-looking in such a situation (where the domestic financial situation is tight),” Kono said.

The foreign minister added that the leaders of the Associations of Southeast Asian Nations, which are major recipients of Japan’s ODA, have expressed concerns over possible ODA reductions.

“We must understand that Japan has been able to enjoy peace and prosperity under the stability of the international community,” Kono said. “ODA is one of Japan’s most important diplomatic tools.”

On Japan-Russia relations, Kono reiterated Japan’s stance that a bilateral peace treaty must be signed after resolving the territorial row over all of the four disputed islands off Hokkaido — not just the two islands that Moscow has promised to return to Japan under a 1956 joint declaration.

In a meeting of senior officials from the two countries in Moscow last week, the Russian side reportedly said the return of Shikotan and Habomai — the two mentioned in the 1956 declaration — would be the final resolution to the dispute.

But Japan maintained that Kunashiri and Etorofu must also ultimately be returned, based on the 1993 agreement that a peace treaty would be signed after resolving the territorial row over all four islands.

Kono said the two countries will continue to work to find points of agreement in the little time left this year, a target for concluding a peace treaty that now appears impossible.

“I am now considering the timing of the visit to Russia — possibly this year,” Kono said.

He also said Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s visit to Russia’s Irkutsk was agreed upon when the prime minister met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Brunei last month, but he emphasized that the timing of Mori’s visit must be “meaningful,” suggesting that it would not be this year.

With former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto entering the new Cabinet as a state minister in charge of Okinawa and northern territory affairs, Kono said he will seek the advice of Hashimoto in territorial talks with Russia and the planned return of the U.S. Marine’s Futenma Air Station in Okinawa.

As prime minister between 1996 and 1998, Hashimoto took initiatives in the peace treaty talks with former Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Hashimoto also agreed with U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1996 that the Futenma base should be returned to Japan in five to seven years — on condition that an alternative heliport facility is built in the island prefecture.

However, the return of Futenma has yet to be realized because of stalled negotiations with local governments for construction of the new facility to take over Futenma’s functions. The city of Nago — the candidate site for the new airfield — is demanding that the U.S. military’s use of the facility be limited to 15 years.

“We have to think of a balance between Japan’s security and the heavy burden placed on Okinawans,” Kono said.

On relations with North Korea, Kono said the talks over normalizing diplomatic relations are “not deadlocked.” Japan and North Korea held the 11th round of normalization talks in Beijing in October, but made little progress and failed to agree on the timing of the next round.

“We have agreed to hold the next talks when both sides have made necessary preparations,” Kono said. “The situation is that we are not up to the point where we can decide on when we will meet again.”

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