State Department briefing: Ambassador-designate to Japan Howard Baker

At the Foreign Press Center, Washington, D.C.
May 30, 2001

MR. BAKER: Thank you very much. Ladies and gentlemen, first of all, may I express my pleasure at the opportunity to be here, and my special pleasure to be here with my wife, Nancy, who served for 18 years in the Senate, all that time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both of us look forward to our time in Tokyo and this part of our career.

My friends, it is a distinct honor to be named U.S. ambassador to Japan by President Bush. As my predecessor, Senator Mike Mansfield, was fond of saying, the bilateral relationship between the United States and Japan is the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none. And I often wondered how "bar none" translated into Japanese. But Mike was a great senator, a great leader and a great ambassador of this country to Japan for 12 years. I had lunch with him recently. He's now 98 years old, and he's as sharp as he was when I met him 30 years ago.

It is especially gratifying to me that my friends and former colleagues in the Senate have confirmed my nomination to be U.S. ambassador to Japan on May 23rd. I anticipate that the president will sign my commission as ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary shortly.

I first visited in Japan in 1967 as a part of a Japanese-American friendship group consisting of other members of the United States Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. I've been to Japan many times since. My wife, the former Nancy Kassebaum Baker and I look forward to our arrival on station in Tokyo perhaps sometime in early July.

I've chosen Dick Christensen, who is here - he is a distinguished Foreign Service officer - to be DCM, Deputy Chief of Mission, in Tokyo. All of us will have much to learn about Japan, about the operation of the embassy and the relationship between our two countries. While I'm there, I look forward to early visits to the several consulates which the United States maintains in Japan. I will, of course, present my credentials to the emperor at his convenience, shortly after my arrival. It is my hope, as well, to visit with Foreign Minister Tanaka either here or in Japan, as well as other members of the cabinet and the Diet.

Since my wife and I both come from a congressional background, establishing a relationship with the Diet members is deeply important to us.

I believe, however, it is prudent to postpone statements on most specific issues until after I am formally commissioned by the president and perhaps arrive in Tokyo. However, with that caveat, I'll be happy to try to answer your questions as best I can today.

Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Questions? Yes? The microphone's coming.

Q I am Satoru Suzuki of TV Asahi, of course of Japan.

Senator Baker, Ambassador Baker, if I may address you that way: Although the Japanese government is now working out details of its economic reform plan, Prime Minister Koizumi has said repeatedly that his economic reforms are aimed mainly at achieving strong economic growth in Japan over the long run and could entail slower growth or even negative growth for at least a year or two. That could mean a slower demand for imports and continued rise in U.S. deficit with Japan. Is that consistent with your key policy goals as you mentioned last week, which are encouraging growth in Japan and encouraging access?

Thank you.

MR. BAKER: May I say to begin with that it is important for us and important for Japan to recognize that we are two sovereign nations and neither of us can really set the policy of the other. So I would not presume to say what the Japanese government will do about trying to reinvigorate their economy. What I can say is that the United States and Japan are partners. Together, the gross national product of our two countries represents 40 percent of the gross national product of the entire world, so what is important to you is important to us in the United States as you go about trying to reinvigorate your economy.

I look forward to seeing the prime minister and others in his government as soon as that is practicable and to hearing their specific proposals. But I believe, and I've said previously that I think one of the components of an enhanced relationship between Japan and the United States is transparency, the opportunity for U.S. investment in Japan as you now have great freedom to invest by Japan in the United States.

But the matter of deciding how you will reinvigorate your economy is uniquely Japan's initiative. The United States will watch with great interest, but we will not presume to try to tell you how you should go about that.

Q My name is Kenji Sobata with NHK, Japan Broadcasting. Mr. Ambassador, unfortunately, I think we have to admit the past 10 years have been Japan's economic and political lowest decade. And many people in Japan attribute the failure to the lack of political leadership in Japan. And now we have an extremely, you know, popular prime minister, Prime Minister Koizumi. So from your viewpoint, do you think Prime Minister Koizumi has got something that Japanese politics has been lacking, or he remains popular simply because of his reformer image and outspokenness?

MR. BAKER: Well, having come from a political background myself, I can tell you that both those things are probably true. Prime Minister Koizumi enjoys a very high popularity rating and that, in turn, gives him the leverage and the authority to try to reform the economy and to initiate other major political change in his country.

I do not claim to know why the Japanese economy has been stagnant for the last 10 years, but Japanese (sic) is a very rich country. You have enormous resources not only in cash and credits, but also in resources. So it is not beyond the mind of man to imagine that a new administration, new government, under aggressive, dynamic leadership such as this prime minister appears to offer, can turn this around and reestablish a pattern of growth. I am optimistic about Japan's future. I am optimistic about change. But once again, I would not presume, the United States government would not presume to tell Japan how they go about that change; that is uniquely Japanese. But optimism and enthusiasm for change is an essential ingredient, and I believe the prime minister brings that to the scene and that is vitally important.

MODERATOR: The gentlemen in the center there.

Q (Name inaudible) - TBS, Tokyo Broadcasting. And, Ambassador, can I ask just about the Japanese political situation, and so many Japanese prime minister changes in this decade because of the unstable situation of the Japanese Diet. And some people - some Japanese have complained that it's a kind of embarrassing story in Japanese politics. And how can you see this kind of embarrassing story, how can you describe the Japanese political situation compared to the United States? Thank you.

MR. BAKER: Well, Japan and the United States have similar political systems in that the authority for government derives from the people.

We are both great world-class democracies. However, Japan is clearly a parliamentary system, the United States is clearly a congressional- presidential system. They are very different. They have very similar authorities and powers, but they go about governance in a very different way.

In many ways, the difficulty of governing in one system is comparable to the difficulty of governing in the other, but the one thing they have in common is that both systems respond to strong leadership. I believe President Bush brings strong leadership to our system. I believe the new prime minister, Koizumi will bring strong leadership to Japan. And I think there is a real opportunity not only for reform in Japan but for embellishing and extending the good relationship between the United States and Japan on many issues, not only economic, but on mutual defense, on trade, and so many others.

But I think we have the chance now to enter a new era of dynamic relationship between the United States and Japan as a result of your recent political situation.

Q (Name inaudible) - with Nikkei Newspaper. Mr. Ambassador, I would like to ask you about your view on Okinawa and security arrangements between United States and Japan. First of all, when do you think you can go to that island, Okinawa, after your inauguration as an ambassador to Japan?

And second question is, you're going to join in the summit meeting probably held at Camp David between President Bush and Prime Minister Koizumi. What kind of topics do you expect to be discussed between those two leaders?

And a third question, if I may, Senator Kassebaum. What kind of role do you expect to play, the first lady from the United States with Mr. Ambassador in Tokyo?

Thank you.

MR. BAKER: Before she answers, may I say she will play whatever role she chooses to play. (Laughter.) And both we and Japan will be better served by reason of it.

And if I can go back to your sequence of questions, let's talk about Okinawa for a moment. Obviously, I cannot go to Okinawa nor to - until after I have formally presented my credentials to the emperor, which I will do as soon as he will receive me.

Second, I recognize Okinawa as an important issue between our countries. In many ways, it is the cornerstone, one of the cornerstones of the mutual defense arrangements we have in the area.

But I also understand something of the tensions that exist between the United States armed forces on that island and the requirements for our operations there. I intend to be fully briefed on those matters before I reach Japan, and I intend to visit Okinawa as soon as that is practical. But I must confer not only with those within my embassy, but also with commanders of military forces in the region and with officials of the Japanese government. It is high on the priority list of things that must be addressed, but I'm sure that both countries addressing it in good faith can find satisfactory accommodation to our mutual requirements.

I would ask Nancy if she cares to say a word about what --

MRS. NANCY BAKER: You answered it well.

MR. BAKER: But it is a real pleasure for me to have a chance to occupy the residence with my wife, Nancy, who has so much experience and background in foreign policy. So we will work together, and I anticipate a good result for that.

Q I'm Yoshi Komori of the Sankei Shimbun. Turning to a defense issue, Prime Minister Koizumi and secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, Mr. Yamasaki, and others now advocate the removal of Japan's self-imposed ban on the exercise of its own right of collective defense, claiming that such a removal would facilitate better and closer military and defense cooperation between the two countries for contingencies.

Would you tell us what your views on this particular issue are from the standpoint of American security policy towards Japan?

MR. BAKER: I've said twice now, and I guess I should repeat a third time, Japan is a sovereign nation and we will respect Japan's judgment on sovereign issues, including defense. But the United States and Japan have a decades long mutual defense cooperation agreement. It's been modified from time to time, and most recently in 1997. But whether or not the Japanese people decide to change Article 9 of their constitution or to reinterpret it, or to act in some other manner remains a problem for Japan - an issue, an opportunity for Japan.

Once again, I do not believe that the United States government will try to suggest how that should be handled. What I will say is that the United States government really wants to make sure that the mutuality of opportunity about the cooperation between our two countries, that our recognition of our interdependence continues unabated. So we will watch with great interest as Japan goes about the business of deciding whether or not to amend its constitution, to reinterpret certain sections of it. But we will be most concerned with making sure that the relationship between our two countries is not changed.

MODERATOR: Further questions? Yes.

Q Keiji Urakami from Kyodo News. I understand that the Japan and the United States are in a final phase of talks on setting up a new vice minister of trade commission to deal with sectoral issues. May we understand that the United States will use this proposed panel to seek - (word inaudible) -- to sectoral issues you pointed out in your congressional confirmation hearing?

MR. BAKER: The answer --

Q Sectoral issues, including renewing expired (auto trade ?) pact with Japan.

MR. BAKER: There's always a danger that a new official, especially a new prime minister, will say more than he's - I mean a new ambassador says more than he is entitled to say.

So I respectfully say that until I'm more fully briefed on that issue, I will defer answering your question until a later date.

It is true, as I said in my confirmation testimony, that the United States will approach this in an ordered way with these new structures. But what the outcome will be or what the final position of the U.S. government will be remains for me to learn or perhaps even for the United States government to decide.

But I will defer answering any further until I'm further briefed on this point. And I'll be glad to talk to you later about it.

Q My name is Hiroshi Oshima of Kyodo News. I would like to ask about the Futenma Airport problem. Mr. Ambassador, the relocation of Futenma Airport has long been deadlocked, apparently because of the so-called 15-year condition put by the Okinawa local government. I understand the rationale for the U.S. government refusal to place such an artificial deadline for the use of military base, but in the meantime, the situation of U.S. bases on Okinawa remain unstable as long as the Futenma problem is unresolved, and that is quite critical for the United States.

I'm wondering if there is no room at all for the compromise on the 15-year condition. And as ambassador, are you wiling to take on that issue?

MR. BAKER: Am I willing to take on the issue? Of course I am. But as in other issues, I will represent my government's point of view on these issues. I do recognize that one of our principal concerns, as you have recognized, is the certainty of a 15-year limit. It has a ring of finality to it that is perhaps a disincentive to do other things that would be helpful and meaningful in the meantime.

It is a problem. The use of the airport is important to the United States. We believe it's important to Japan. And it is also an annoyance to the residents of Japan. But I have conferred with U.S. military officials about this problem. I intend to confer further. I intend to go to Okinawa. I will have recommendations to make to my government on that issue. But at this moment, I'm not prepared to state them publicly.

MODERATOR: Further questions? The gentleman in back?

Q My name is Hiro Nakagawa, Jiji Press. I remember that you expressed concern about the bilateral trade deficit between Japan and the United States, which shooted up to a record level last year. And some people in this country said that it might be okay for Japan returning to the growth (past ?) by using the export goods, Japanese goods to this country. Do you agree with this idea?

MR. BAKER: My idea on trade between the United States and Japan is that our objective should make it reciprocal to the maximum extent, transparent, and free of as many restrictions as possible. Now, that cannot be done overnight; it will be a gradual transition. But the overall objective should be free trade between the United States and Japan, as that is our overall objective in other parts of the world as well. But realism suggests that these things are not accomplished overnight, and that remains a goal, it does not constitute an immediate course of action, but it is a goal that we should - both countries should enjoy reciprocity of trade opportunities, and that that should occur within a reasonable time frame.

MODERATOR: Time for a couple of more questions. The gentleman in the back.

Q From the Sankei Shimbun again. As a former majority leader of the Senate, to what extent would you predict that the Bush administration's policy towards East Asia, missile defense and others, would be hampered, if anything, by the reversal of control that we have witnessed recently from the Republican to Democrat?

MR. BAKER: Well, that's a very good question. And, obviously, it has some effect because the chairmanship of each committee will change, including the Foreign Relations Committee and the Armed Services Committee.

My own personal view, which is not necessarily the government's view, but my own personal view, from my experience in the Senate, is that it won't make as much difference as people think, because particularly when you're dealing with foreign policy issues and sensitive defense issues party lines blur, and it isn't often, and has not been so for a long time, it isn't often that you get a party-line vote on a fundamentally important foreign policy issue. That may change, but I doubt it. I think that there'll be higher level of cooperation on foreign policy issues in the Senate than on most other issues.

So, while it's important and it will bring significant change in the chairmanship of committees and certain procedures in the Senate, on substantive issues, I do not anticipate much change in attitude. Those who are for issues will probably still be for them, and those who are opposed will probably still be opposed. But the Senate is almost equally divided and there will be energetic debate on a variety of issues. But I suspect there will be no debate in the Senate ,or elsewhere, on the importance of the relationship between the United States and Japan.

Q Satoru Suzuki of TV Asahi again. Mr. Ambassador, do you have anything to say about the movie, "Pearl Harbor," both to Japanese-Americans? Some people say that the movie, especially the image of Japan's sneak attack could rekindle the anti-Japanese sentiments among the Americans, and vice-versa.

MR. BAKER: I've not seen the movie. (Laughter.) But I must say I do not think it will, as you say, rekindle an animosity between the United States and Japan. I think we're long past that. I think there is a mutuality of respect between our two countries that has overwhelmed any vestige of animosity. I, myself, was a young naval officer at the end of World War II, and I can tell you first-hand that I know of no residual animosity, but rather admiration for how Japan has changed to become one of the world's great democracies, how Japan has shown the way for industrial-commercial development. And I don't think a movie is going to make any difference, nor do I think specials on television about Pearl Harbor will make any difference in the fundamental relationship between Japan and the United States.

I admire Japan. I like Japan. Most people in America admire and like Japan. And it's on that cornerstone that we will build this continuing relationship and cooperation as leaders in the world. Japan and the United States not only enjoy a great share of the world's wealth, but also a great share of the responsibility for seeing that this is a peaceful world. And that will continue.

Q Kenji Sobata with NHK again. President Bush and his security advisers said never again should a U.S. president visit China for nine days and refuse to stop in Tokyo. I kind of agree with him. But the idea of trilateral relationship among the U.S., Japan and China should be more than whether a U.S. president visits those countries. So I'm wondering how this administration will urge Japan to build more constructive relationship with China, partly to help strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.

MR. BAKER: I don't think there's any part of the world that has a more complex state of relationships than East Asia and the United States, not only between the United States and Japan, but the United States and China, the United States and the Koreas, and the interrelationship between those countries and each other. The fundamental of American policy should be that we wish to cultivate peaceful relationships, trade and opportunities with all of those countries and other countries in the region.

It is clear, of course, that China, Japan and Korea are the giants of the economy in the region and that they do interrelate and that we will take account of that interrelationship in our attitude and policies toward all three of them. My guess is I'm certain that the president of the United States is mindful of that. I do not think for one moment that we will try to play off Japan against China or China against Japan or either of them against Korea, but we'll think of them as friends and partners in a collective relationship.

MODERATOR: One more question in the back.

Q Hiroshi - (last name inaudible) - of Nikkei Newspaper. Let me go back to economic issues between the United States and Japan. Mr. Ambassador, as you mentioned, that Mr. Koizumi already pointed out what the problem Japan has in terms of economic issues; the problem is structural problem and banking problem. And on the other hand, it is a fact that it is very hard to solve these problems in Japan, so Japanese economy has been suffering from - very much since mid-'90s. And some U.S. administration officials in Bush administration have said that United States can help Japan in some way to go out of the difficult problem in economic area. So my question is, do you have any idea how can you help to Japanese economy?

MR. BAKER: Well, I do have some ideas about how we can be helpful to the Japanese economy, but forgive me for saying so, they must first be expressed by the administration to the government of Japan and not by an ambassador-designate at a press conference.

So I have an idea that there will be extensive consultation between the United States and Japan on these issues, and I have no doubt that the U.S. will supply ideas about what to do. But I go back to my earlier statement; Japan is not without resources. It's a huge country with a huge economy. You have a huge reservoir of savings and resources with which to deal with this problem. So the prime minister has an opportunity to harness the best thought, the best advice he can gain on how to approach it, and it will be a multi-front approach, I'm sure. And the United States will be glad to participate, but it is Japan's decision on how they proceed, and we would not presume to tell them how they must do it.

Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you. I want to thank our friends from the Japanese press. And I think on behalf of everyone in the room, we want to wish you Godspeed and all the best on a great assignment.

MR. BAKER: Thank you. I appreciate that.