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Engaging with U.S., China on an equal basis not possible: Tokyo Univ. prof. Kubo

Below is an interview with Fumiaki Kubo, a professor at the University of Tokyo who specializes in American politics. Interviewed by Takuya Mizorogi.


Out of the three candidates for the presidency of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), the U.S. had the highest expectations of Yoshihide Suga. Although Shigeru Ishiba was highly rated as a defense specialist, he might have brought up a review of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) and perplexed the U.S. Fumio Kishida might have given the impression of being a dove.


Although Prime Minister Suga’s diplomatic vision is unknown, the U.S. views him as someone who has “capably supported the Abe administration behind the scenes.” I think that the Trump administration is relieved to see the inauguration of Prime Minister Suga, who has claimed he will continue the policies of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


There were some moments during the LDP presidential race that perhaps made the U.S. uneasy, however. During the debate between the three candidates on Sept. 12, Suga said that Japan’s relationship with the U.S. and China is not an “exclusive choice of one over the other.” The late Koichi Kato, a former LDP secretary-general who was a candidate for the premiership, once said that “Japan should engage with the U.S. and China on an equal basis,” causing suspicion among observers in the U.S. Engaging with the U.S. or China on a 100 to 0 basis is impossible, but treating them both the same is not possible either. 


China’s provocations in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa infringe on Japan’s sovereignty. China threatens the global order in cybersecurity and the South China Sea. If Japan shows an overly sympathetic attitude toward China, China may interpret that as Japan’s giving it carte blanche “to infringe upon its sovereignty.” There is no need to hesitate to hold a summit meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, but Japan should reconsider or further postpone Xi’s visit to Japan as a state guest.  


The worst scenario for Japan would be if the U.S., in its search for a way to deal with China, turns to a policy in which the U.S. and China jointly become global leaders. If former Vice President Joe Biden wins the U.S. presidential election in November, former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken and former U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice may join the new administration. They were responsible for diplomatic and security policy under the Obama administration.


The security environment in East Asia is more tense than in 2017, when the Democratic Party fell from power. In the Democratic Party today, there is increasing conflict between the liberal wing, which does not take a very confrontational position toward China in military terms, and the moderate wing, which has begun to take a critical view of China.


Prime Minister Suga should directly persuade Biden, if he is elected, that “an extension of Obama era policies will not deter China.” It is important for Japan to elicit the U.S.’s understanding that “Japan has sovereignty over the Senkakus.”


It is possible that President Trump announces an unexpected policy on COVID-19 or a diplomatic initiative immediately before the election and is reelected. In his second term, President Trump may demand an increase in Japan’s payment of the cost of stationing the U.S. military in Japan.


Japan must be rational. President Trump emphasizes personal trust. One way to proceed is to have Abe, who has built a rapport  with President Trump, continue to play a role, albeit an unofficial one, in Japan-U.S. diplomacy.


On the issue of deterring foreign missiles, Suga has only said that he will “respond while observing the ruling parties’ discussion.” Isolationism in the style of President Trump may become the diplomatic norm for the U.S. in the near future, and the Japan-U.S. alliance may reach a critical point. The nomenclature “capacity to attack enemy basis” notwithstanding, it is important for Japan to strengthen the capacity to deter the threat from missiles in a wider sense.

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