Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has hailed as a “natural evolution” Japan’s push to play a more active role in global defense and security issues amid growing concerns over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and China’s increasing maritime assertiveness.
In a wide-ranging interview with NHK that was released Sunday, Bannon told of U.S. President Donald Trump’s close relationship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has set a goal of revising the war-renouncing Constitution by 2020, specifically to legalize the Self-Defense Forces.
Asked about how the White House envisions Japan’s role in the fraught East Asian security environment, Bannon served up a candid response.
“Prime Minister Abe and others have talked (about) Japan’s looking at redoing its Constitution, looking at getting just away from a Self-Defense Force, maybe back to become a military power again,” Bannon said. “And I think that what President Trump is saying, given its role in the Pacific, given its role as how central it is to the strategy, that it will acquire more of a military force over time.”
Bannon was also asked about Trump’s comments on the sale of sophisticated weapons to Tokyo amid Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear weapons advances.
In August and September, North Korea fired over Japan intermediate-range missiles designed to carry a nuclear payload.
Trump, during his first visit to Japan as president earlier this month, said Japan will purchase “massive amounts” of U.S. military gear, creating “a lot of jobs for us and a lot of safety for Japan.”
But Bannon said the two allies are “just beginning” to ensure the two militaries can work together “and that the United States is there to help its ally Japan rearm and rearm appropriately.”
Abe has sought to loosen postwar restraints on the SDF with a historic shift in Japan’s pacifist defense posture in March 2016 that allowed Tokyo to exercise its right to collective self-defense without violating the Constitution.
In the ensuing months, the SDF and U.S. military have ramped up joint exercises, including a massive drill just last week involving three of the U.S. Navy’s aircraft carriers — the first such display of military power in the region in a decade.
With the two nations’ militaries working together more closely than ever before, said Bannon, “it would be obvious” that some of weapons systems purchased are U.S.-made.
Citing the threats from nuclear-armed North Korea and “the rest of the Northwest Pacific” — likely an allusion to China — Bannon said this path is “the natural evolution of Japan to kind of regain its military strength.
“It’s a fairly dangerous time,” he added. “And it’s just logical that the Japanese now would start to think about rearming.”
Bannon, who ostensibly resigned from his top White House advisory post in August but says he speaks with Trump “every couple of days,” also said the president had praised Abe as a “very thoughtful man.”
“He really thinks, I think, very highly of Abe as a thinker and also a man of action,” Bannon said.
Known as a China hawk, Bannon called Japan the “linchpin” of the United States’ strategy in Asia.
“It’s the oldest and deepest ally we have in the Pacific,” he said, touting the Trump administration’s Indo-Pacific strategy, a term borrowed from Japan that the White House has rolled out to refer to its current Asia policy.
It “is really a maritime strategy of the great maritime powers of the United States, Japan, Australia and India,” Bannon said. “I don’t want to call it containment. But kind of a ring around the Asian land power of China. Japan’s central to that.”
Still, Bannon said Trump needs Beijing to rein in Pyongyang, which he called “a client state of China.”
“I think that the best option to me is direct negotiations with China because I think China is the key that picks the lock to North Korea,” he said.
The former top Trump adviser also took on the contentious issue of trade, which has frustrated both Tokyo and Washington.
Japan, a strong advocate of free trade, fought tooth and nail for passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal — an agreement that Trump promptly tore up in his first days in office. The White House has since said it will instead pursue bilateral deals.
“What the U.S. doesn’t want to do is get into any more relationships, whether it’s the Paris Accord or TPP, where you’re one of dozens of participants and you’re kind of held by the rules of the smallest participant,” Bannon said. “You don’t really know what you’re getting into. The ramifications of those are only known years later.”
Instead, he added, the U.S. has set its sights on bilateral trade deals with Japan, South Korea and other countries.
“But I wouldn’t believe that the United States would get into TPP on its old terms,” Bannon said. “Maybe some reconstructed terms, you never know what could happen. But I don’t anticipate that.”
While holding out hope that the U.S. may rejoin the deal, Japan has pushed for a revised pact, known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, consisting of the remaining 11 nations.
But Bannon has denied that Trump is taking a harder line than his predecessors on Japan and South Korea to do more in terms of their security and trade ties, which he called “inextricably linked.”
“It’s not singling out South Korea, or Japan, or others for unfair treatment,” Bannon said of Trump’s trade policies. “It’s just saying, ‘Hey, we have to be in a trading relationship that is reciprocal.’ That’s the term he keeps using, reciprocal. And in that reciprocal trade relationship it would somehow have a balance so that we don’t always run current account deficits.”
Bannon’s interview also took a strange turn when, in the middle of being grilled on what the interviewer alleged was “a stalemate” in the North Korean nuclear crisis, he appeared to blast NHK for being “the CNN of Japan.”
“You see, this is once again what I call the opposition party,” he said. “NHK’s taken their proper role. I get a special call out now for NHK taking their proper role on the New York Times. You must be the CNN of Japan, right? You put provocative terms like stalemate. ‘It must be a stalemate.’ You see, it’s not a stalemate. It’s not a stalemate at all. It’s actually a process.”
Trump and his cohorts have blasted CNN since the early days of his campaign, labeling the U.S. news network as a purveyor of “fake news.” This trend has continued since he took office.