National / Politics

Taro Kono’s clean energy critique in UAE speech fuels talk of Abe succession

by Isabel Reynolds and Chisaki Watanabe

Bloomberg

Criticism by a Cabinet minister of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s energy policies may say more about his own political prospects than it does about the country’s debate over clean power.

Taro Kono, whom Abe appointed foreign minister last year, used a speech Sunday in the United Arab Emirates to dismiss as “lamentable” Japan’s clean energy targets. Kono’s comments, which come just days after he told his own energy task force that touting ideals that don’t match reality was like “tending bonsai in the garden while your house overflows with trash,” have injected political tension into Japan’s push to draft new energy policies.

The blunt speech fueled talk of an eventual leadership bid by the foreign minister, who has been mentioned as a possible Liberal Democratic Party chief since his surprise appointment in August. While Kono’s enthusiasm for unpopular ideas like cutting spending on the elderly have led some to see him as an eccentric, the Georgetown University graduate’s confidence on the global stage — and self-deprecating Twitter feed — have won fans. By wading into energy policy, Kono could tap into a potential base of political support while setting himself apart from other LDP members. Kono, 55, has campaigned for phasing out nuclear power — a topic of intense debate since the 2011 Fukushima meltdowns — in contrast to the drive by Abe’s government to restart nuclear plants to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Tom O’Sullivan, founder of Tokyo-based energy consultancy Mathyos, said Kono’s adoption of a more proactive approach like that of former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry could have big implications for the nation’s energy sector. “The Foreign Ministry is one of Japan’s most important bureaucratic bastions,” O’Sullivan said. “Lending its voice to an expanded rollout of clean energy is an important step forward.”

During his speech at a renewable energy conference in Abu Dhabi, Kono questioned Japan’s target of raising its share of power generation from renewable sources by 2030 to between 22 percent and 24 percent — roughly in line with the current global average, including hydropower. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which sets the country’s energy policies, is expected this summer to publish revised long-term plans, which were last updated in 2014. In response to Kono’s comments, the director of the ministry’s renewable energy division said Monday the current targets are “pretty ambitious” and Japan plans to introduce as much clean power as possible.

Any shot at the top job is probably years away for Kono after Abe led his LDP to another victory in October. Abe is expected to win a fresh three-year term in a party leadership election likely to be held in September, potentially keeping him in office until 2021 and making him Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. Still, the party boasts few obvious successors. At 36, Shinjiro Koizumi — the popular son of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi — is seen as too young. Kono “definitely has potential for the future,” said Hiroyuki Kishi, a former trade ministry bureaucrat who is now a professor at Keio University. “He has been happy to get a more senior post,” and has been praised for hewing closely to Abe’s directions.

The Sankei newspaper, which generally supports the right-leaning ruling party on its editorial pages, said Tuesday that Kono had impressed with his “realistic stance” on relations with neighbors China and North Korea. “He has kept quiet about extreme ideas such as abandoning nuclear power and halving overseas aid,” the newspaper said. “But the fact that he is opposing traditional LDP policy and making his presence felt shows concern that if he just ‘drives safely’ he will disappear into obscurity.”

Kono himself seemed to want to tamp down speculation about his motives for making the speech, citing the Sankei’s “obscurity” remark on Twitter.

“The only ones who are worried about that are the Sankei newspaper. I’m busy with the Japan-South Korea agreement, Rakhine State, Yemen, maritime interests and Vancouver.”