MANILA – Foreign Minister Taro Kono brushed aside a provocative remark by his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, during their first talks since he assumed his post last week, saying he wants Beijing to “learn how to behave as a big power.”
At the bilateral meeting in Manila on Monday, Wang told Kono, “Frankly speaking, we were disappointed to hear your comments” over issues surrounding the South China Sea during the East Asia Summit foreign ministers’ meeting that was held earlier in the day.
Kono is widely seen as holding a pro-China stance. His father, Yohei Kono, a former foreign minister, is a regular visitor to China who has not tried to justify Japan’s past colonial rule in Asia. The elder Kono has also steered clear of backing an LDP-proposed amendment to the pacifist Constitution.
“Your father was an honest politician. I hope you will place weight on the lessons of history that he went through and his accurate opinion,” Wang said.
The outset of the talks was open to the media.
“We felt that you were forced to fulfill a mission that the United States had given you,” Wang said, referring to Kono’s earlier remarks regarding China’s military buildup in the contested South China Sea.
Kono had suggested he would remind Beijing of the importance of the rule of law in dealing with disputes in the waters, one of the world’s vital shipping routes, where several countries have overlapping territorial claims with China.
Kono told reporters Sunday he would call for demilitarization in the South China Sea.
“I became foreign minister in a very difficult era when we are facing North Korean issues and various maritime issues,” said Kono, who is acquainted with Wang, a former ambassador to Japan.
Kono later told reporters: “We did not fight each other.” He added that the Japanese side should “speak up” when it’s called for.
The ministers met on the sidelines during a series of gatherings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which marked Kono’s debut on the world stage Sunday.
Kono, who assumed his post in a Cabinet reshuffle on Thursday, has also called on China to do more to address North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Beijing is one of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the chair of stalled six-party talks — involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States — aimed at denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula.
Given that North Korea’s trade with China accounts for around 90 percent of Pyongyang’s total foreign trade, Beijing has a significant influence over the country.
The Security Council on Saturday imposed fresh sanctions on the North that will slash the nation’s $3 billion of annual export revenue by a third in response to its two long-range missile tests in July.
Washington has pressed for more biting sanctions, having previously floated an oil embargo and a global ban on Pyongyang’s national airline, Air Koryo.
According to a Japanese government official, Wang also told Kono that China opposes unilateral sanctions on Pyongyang.
Kono also said Monday that he had a brief exchange with his North Korean counterpart, Ri Yong Ho, the previous day.
Kono told reporters that he urged Ri to resolve issues such as Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs and its past abductions of Japanese nationals. Japan has no diplomatic relations with North Korea.
It marked the first meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers since August 2015, when then-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and then-North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong met on the fringes of a regional security forum in Kuala Lumpur, according to a Japanese official.
Kono said the meeting took place during a gala dinner on Sunday, but he declined comment on what Ri said.