Armitage says next prime minister should engage Beijing

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The next prime minister should visit Asia first thing and promote dialogue with China in such areas as energy to improve ties, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in a recent interview.

“The most important thing is we need a Japan that is not an automatic follower of the United States,” Armitage said, noting that President George W. Bush has followed some advice from Koizumi, especially about Asian matters.

“Particularly in a time when we’re so heavily tied up in Afghanistan and Iraq and with Iran,” he said, “we need a Japan who can be a good partner for us in Asia and who can advise us when we’re going the wrong way in Asia.

“So I’m looking for a Japan who can help in a difficult time to understand better Asia,” Armitage said.

Noting he has no concerns about the strong bilateral alliance created by Bush and Koizumi, Armitage said, “I would hope that wherever the new prime minister goes it’s an Asian country first . . . that’s a very important signal to send to Asia that Japan wants to be part of the life of Asia.”

As for Japan’s soured ties with China and South Korea due mainly to Koizumi’s repeated visits to Yasukuni Shrine, Armitage said he thinks the current leaders in Seoul and Beijing are using nationalism to unify their people.

“So my own view is that if it wasn’t Yasukuni, there would be some other issues that people would raise,” he said.

“But . . . the things that bring Japan, the United States, China and South Korea together are many more than those which put us apart,” Armitage said, stressing the need to promote dialogue in cooperative areas, such as on energy and environment issues with China.

“I believe that access to energy is what drives (China’s) People’s Liberation Army and Navy in the size of their forces. They want to be able to assure access to oil,” he said. “And if they feel more confident about their ability to have oil, to conserve . . . they’ll have less need for such a robust military.”

Highlighting the boom in Japan of South Korean cultural imports, including music and other entertainment products, Armitage said, “In the long run, there will be many more things that put us together than drive us apart.”

As for the ongoing debate in Japan over whether the prime minister should visit Yasukuni Shrine, Armitage said the next leader has to “weigh all the elements there, domestic opinion, international opinion, but whatever this democratic debate comes up with, we’ll accept it.”

Armitage said the “biggest fear” is North Korea, especially with there being a “50-50 chance” that Pyongyang will conduct a nuclear test.

Referring to debate about revising war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution and building up a pre-emptive strike capability, Armitage called the discussions “very healthy” while stressing the need for other countries to refrain from interfering in those discussions.

“We’re not going to say that Japan should get rid of Article 9, it’s your decision,” Armitage said.

On pre-emptive strikes, however, Armitage indicated that Japan may not need such a capability as it plans to deploy the missile defense system to “more readily protect your cities” and because a missile attack on Japan would bring in the United States automatically under the bilateral security treaty.

Armitage said above all he has confidence that Japan’s 60-year-old democracy “will not do something that’s not well thought out and in the best interest of most of the people.”

He said Koizumi’s successor should also focus on domestic matters, such as raising the consumption tax and taking care of the social safety net to keep the economy strong and improve the fiscal situation.

“The most important thing the prime minister has to do is to make sure that the Japanese citizens can continue to enjoy the benefits,” Armitage said.

He said protecting the nation is also “the most important duty” of the prime minister, and expressed hope the new leader “will look very carefully at how much money is spent for defense and that the money is spent appropriately to make sure that Japan is able to defend herself and work alongside the United States for the defense of Japan.”