SHUNSUKE SHIGETA, Nikkei staff writer
TOKYO — U.S. President Joe Biden was much quicker than his predecessors to offer assurances that the security treaty with Japan applies to the Senkaku Islands, a welcome surprise to Tokyo, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said.
In his first interview with Nikkei since leaving the post in the fall, Suga talked about his discussions with Biden — particularly their April summit in the U.S., where China drove much of the agenda, including tensions around Taiwan and in the East and South China seas. The Senkakus are administered by Tokyo and claimed by Beijing as the Diaoyu.
Suga also discussed how he and Biden bonded over their shared experience of starting from modest backgrounds and climbing to the top of the political ladder. “Within less than 10 minutes, it felt like we had a connection,” he said.
Looking back on his government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, Suga noted the challenges of working with a heavily siloed bureaucracy and criticized the excessive caution that led Japan to hold off on using vaccines already shown to be safe and effective abroad.
Edited excerpts from the interview follow.
Q: You talked about Taiwan Strait contingencies with President Biden when you visited the U.S. in April. Was it an in-depth discussion?
A: Our joint statement was the first in 52 years to explicitly mention the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. It strongly reflected our shared concern and sense of urgency. I can’t discuss the details of my exchange with the president.
To view [the statement] as calling out China for criticism is overly simplistic. We stated the importance of candid conversation with China. The truth is that China is a global power, so we made it clear that Japan and the U.S. would speak out together against its unilateral attempts to change the status quo.
The thing that was in my mind most in my first visit to the U.S. [as prime minister] was my one-on-one meeting with the president. It would last about 20 minutes. I kept thinking about what to say there. After that, with the diplomatic groundwork having been laid, high-level officials on our respective sides would join and hold talks. I thought about how important it was to gain the president’s trust somehow from the outset.
Q: What did you discuss at the one-on-one meeting?
A: I started from scratch and became a city council member and then a national lawmaker. I worked my way up the ladder. When I became prime minister, I explained by background as the son of a strawberry farmer, so I went in thinking I would talk mainly about that, but it turned out that the president had a very similar story.
He keeps photos of his family in the Oval Office — he cares deeply about them. Neither of us came from political families but overcame various trials to become president and prime minister. Within less than 10 minutes, it felt like we had a connection, or something in common — like we both had it tough. We didn’t even touch our hamburgers.
Q: At the summit, you talked about a Japan-U.S. “partnership for a new era” and said it was important for Japan to bolster its defenses.
A: During the Abe government, we enacted security legislation and established a framework for Japan-U.S. cooperation. It was very highly regarded. We hadn’t had anything like that before then.
It typically takes two years or so for [American presidents] to state that the Japan-U.S. security treaty applies to the Senkaku Islands, but [Biden’s administration] declared that right from the start. I was truly surprised, because it took some time for [previous President Barack] Obama to say it.
Q: You conveyed Japan’s intention to strengthen its capabilities, including the Self-Defense Forces?
A: That’s right.
Q: The summit was a catalyst for increased defense spending in the fiscal 2022 budget.
A: I also talked about the importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and said that the U.S. should engage with it. Japan, the U.S., Australia and India have built a very good partnership [with the Quad security grouping], but it’s important to work with ASEAN as well.
Q: 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of Japan’s normalization of diplomatic relations with China. While Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Japan was postponed past your tenure, how did you envision ties with China?
A: China is certainly important to Japan as a neighbor. But what it’s doing now is problematic. Japan and the U.S. need to speak out clearly and firmly against its efforts to unilaterally change the status quo in the South and East China seas.
It’s undeniable that China is economically important. We have to make clear that universal values are important to us. With that in mind, we would keep an eye on the situation and respond appropriately.
Q: Would it have been better to dissolve the lower house for a snap election earlier?
A: No. I considered it quite a bit, but with so much going on with the state of emergency [declared last summer after a surge in cases], I thought I shouldn’t do it.
I had said I would make dealing with the coronavirus pandemic the top priority, so although I weighed different time frames [for the dissolution], it became difficult when the emergency declaration was extended.
Q: Was postponing the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics an option?
A: I said at the time that we shouldn’t do it. Delaying them even once was difficult for the athletes. As for doing so again, it would have been a different story if it were clear that the pandemic was going to subside, but there was still uncertainty around that.
Q: Japan began administering vaccines two months after other countries.
A: Other countries authorized the Pfizer vaccine, for instance, based on Pfizer’s clinical trials. Japan had its own trials conducted here on the grounds that “Japanese people are different from Westerners.” Japan needs an arrangement to get into clinical trials.
Q: Is this an instance where Japan has lagged behind on internationalization?
A: Yes. Japan worried too much about the safety of the vaccines even though they were so widely used elsewhere.
Q: Your government had a difficult relationship with the experts.
A: Of course we listened to the opinions of experts, but there are just too many of them. They opposed holding the Olympics. But should we have heeded that and canceled? Of course we should have tough COVID countermeasures, but there has to be a judgment call on how effective the measures would be.
Q: Government agencies seemed to move slowly.
A: Japan’s ministries and agencies are compartmentalized. It’s hard to set targets in a bureaucracy. Bureaucrats always think about responsibility [in case they make mistakes]. There are also issues with jurisdiction.
Q: You made painful policy decisions such as releasing wastewater from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the ocean.
A: There wasn’t as much resistance as I’d expected. The wastewater release and other issues, such as legislation on land use around areas important to security, were things we couldn’t get around.
I asked [then-Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Toshihiro] Nikai to handle the creation of a digital agency, [revisions to] the referendum law, and the land use law from the outset, which is why we were able to get them done all at once.