Interactive Public Forum with Taro Kono

On Tuesday 12 May 2022, the Perth USAsia Centre was privileged to host Taro Kono, Member of the House of Representatives of the National Diet of Japan and former Minister of Defence and Minister for Foreign Affairs. During his distinguished career, Mr Kono has been instrumental in the transformation of Japan as a regional leader, particularly through his role in reviving the Quad in 2017.

Mr Kono joined the event virtually for an address to an in-person audience in Perth, as well as viewers online from across Australia, Japan and the world. Also joining the event as panellists were Professor Gordon Flake, CEO of the Perth USAsia Centre, Isabella Artega Guadarrama, 2022 President of UN Youth Western Australia, and Wai Wan, Founder and Principle of Perth Asian Professionals.

The Centre was proud to partner with a number of youth organisations to empower and give voice to the rising generation of strategic thinkers. In addition to Isabella and Wai, we welcomed the participation of young leaders from Perth, including Molly Pritchard from The University of Western Australia’s Arts Union, and Racheline Tantular from the ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership.

Taro Kono commenced his address by outlining Japan’s biggest strategic concern in the Indo-Pacific: China’s heightened regional presence. Mr Kono noted that China is rapidly expanding its military capacity, including increasing its military spend 42-fold in the last thirty years. This is a serious concern for Japan, as China continues to challenge the status quo in the East China and South China Seas, particularly in the Senkaku and surrounding islands.

Mr Kono outlined that China regularly employs coercive tactics to assert its regional influence. This is seen in its Belt and Road Initiative, which is used as a tool to trap countries into unpayable debts, which results in Chinese acquirement of infrastructure, as seen in Sri Lanka with China’s ownership of the Hambantota Port. More recently, China’s use of economic coercion as a political tool – as experienced by Japan in 2010 and Australia in 2020 – has become a major threat to international trade.

Further, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has implications for regional stability in the Indo-Pacific. Mr Kono asserted that China would be closely watching the situation in Ukraine to see how effective economic sanctions imposed by the international community would be, and what the lasting impact of these would be on Russia and the everyday lives of its citizens. Mr Kono stressed that if leaders failed to make the cost of Russia’s invasion high, there was a risk of a similar conflict unfolding in East Asia – most likely a Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

As the regional strategic environment continues to evolve and US presence declines, Japan needs to rethink its strategic engagement. Under Japan’s pacifist constitution, Article 9 limits Japan’s ability to have a fully functional defence force, which includes offensive military capabilities. Mr Kono argued that this was no longer feasible, and Japan needs to reassess its strategic priorities to shift towards collective security with allies including Australia and the US.

Mr Kono stated that AUKUS establishes a regional security framework for the Indo-Pacific, and that by including Japan to expand the grouping to ‘JAUKUS’, Japan could contribute active participation in weapons development. He also proposed expanding ‘Five Eyes’ to ‘Six Eyes’, and potentially even creating an Asian equivalent to NATO – either by expanding it into the Pacific to become NAPTO (North Atlantic and Pacific Treaty Organization) or creating a new Indo-Pacific mechanism on its own.

Mr Kono also reflected that Japan had been a leader in establishing Indo-Pacific economic architecture, citing Prime Minister Abe’s important role in reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) after the US withdrew in 2016. Mr Kono was critical of the US’s lack of engagement in the region, noting that its soon-to-be-announced ‘Indo-Pacific Economic Framework’ was not an effective way for the US to engage in the region, asserting that it should have stayed in the TPP.

Finally, Mr Kono concluded his address by proposing a way forward for Japan and Australia in regional cooperation. He noted that cooperation in Pacific Island countries would be crucial in tacking non-traditional security issues, and Japan and Australia should do more with ASEAN to support member countries economically.

The event then turned to its question and answer portion, where Mr Kono responded to questions from Perth USAsia Centre Indo-Pacific Fellows Rajeswari Rajagopalan, Karen Pitakdumrongkit and Megumi Yoshitomi. These questions evoked thoughtful responses from Mr Kono, and addressed topics including the future of the Quad, ASEAN members’ response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and regional food insecurity.

Isabella and Wai then joined Gordon Flake on stage for a panel discussion with Mr Kono. Isabella and Wai both provided young people’s perspectives on international issues, giving voice to topics including political representation and the infrastructure necessary to engage young people in foreign policy conversations. Mr Kono stressed the importance of continued participation by young leaders in international exchanges and fellowships to build better international relationships and give voice to challenges threatening peace, stability and prosperity.

As US presence in the region declines, Australia and Japan have an important duty to play a more active role in upholding a rules-based order. In recent years, Japan has led by asserting itself as a regional leader, and Australia can learn valuable lessons from Japan’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific to better assert itself as a partner for other regional countries.

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