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U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel: “China betrayed trust”

The evolving U.S.-Japan alliance undergirds a “free and open Indo-Pacific”


Interviewed by Shintani Manabu, Bungeishunju editor-in-chief


U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel (62), who arrived at his post on January 23 of this year, is well known in the United States as a forceful politician and has been given the nickname “Rahmbo.” Emanuel, the scion of Eastern European Jews who settled in Chicago, immersed himself in politics while still at university. He cut a brilliant figure, contributing to campaigns and fund raising for Democratic candidates.


In 1993, he was appointed senior advisor to the Clinton administration and entered the White House. There he made the acquaintance of Joe Biden (now president), then the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and worked on gun control and reducing sexual violence. In 2003, he was elected to the House of Representatives from Chicago. Emanuel, who has strong connections to the business community, turned a critical eye on China from the perspective of free trade.


In 2009, he returned to the White House as chief of staff in the Obama administration and displayed uncommon shrewdness in such initiatives as reform of the health care system. He became Chicago mayor in 2011 and was appointed ambassador with the launch of the Biden administration.


Bungeishunju: As the toughest negotiator in the Democratic Party, how do you view the present U.S.-Japan relationship? And how should Japan and the U.S. confront China, which is tending to become increasingly hegemonistic?


Ambassador: First I’d like to recount a story about the recently deceased former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and share my impressions of him.


The death of former Prime Minister Abe was truly a great loss.


For me, he was the symbol of leadership. I think leadership is about being idealistic about why you’re doing what you’re doing and strong enough to get it done. In that sense, former Prime Minister Abe was the epitome of leadership.


I met former Prime Minister Abe only a few weeks after I arrived in Japan. And I participated together with him in a forum several weeks before his death. On that occasion I also had a private meeting with him. He had his own ideas, and he was not afraid to clearly express them. I like a person with that sort of attitude.


“A free and open Indo-Pacific”… former Prime Minister Abe was truly the godfather of this philosophy and strategy. Today these words are on everyone’s lips. Australian and Japanese leaders, Indian government officials, even Europeans—all use this phrase. Today we use this phrase daily without hesitation. I think this is the legacy of former Prime Minister Abe.


Japan is physically and mentally an “island nation.” The Japanese tend to think that the problems of other countries and societies don’t affect their own country or society because they are physically and psychologically distant. I believe that this situation gives birth to “trust.” I’m a former Chicago mayor and White House chief of staff and wherever I went in America I was surrounded by bodyguards. I’m also guarded in Japan, but I was surprised that the security police always walk far ahead of me. They don’t even turn around to check whether I’m safe. (laughter) But this is evidence of a society where there is an exceedingly high degree of trust. That’s wonderful. I pray that the recent shooting incident doesn’t undermine the trust that exists in Japanese society.


We must move to implement the many things within the Quad (Japan-U.S.-Australia-India security dialogue) and “Free and open Indo-Pacific” constructs created and bequeathed us by former Prime Minister Abe. He left a great legacy.


Visit Hiroshima, Nagasaki as a “U.S. citizen”


Bungeishunju: What’s your general impression of Japan? Could you share with us any memorable anecdotes since you came to Japan?


Ambassador: There are many. My visit to Hiroshima with Prime Minister Kishida and presenting credentials to the Emperor are especially fond memories. In Kyoto, I had a magical time and walked the streets until 2:00 a.m.! I never realized that I still had that stamina to walk around till the late hours of the night. (laughter) I took trains and went to the market. I love trains and markets. In Okinawa, I had dinner with high school students who are about to go to the U.S. to study. I had a wonderful time talking with them and listening to their dreams, hopes, aspirations and expectations. I have visited Hiroshima, but as an American citizen, I have a responsibility to visit Nagasaki as well. I am planning to go there in August.


Bungeishunju: What do you mean by “responsibility as an American citizen?” Would you please elaborate?


Ambassador: As U.S. ambassador, I have the responsibility [to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki], but I also have the responsibility as a U.S. citizen to visit not only Hiroshima but also Nagasaki to understand history and see firsthand the impact [of the atomic bombs] there. I don’t want people to think I’m visiting Hiroshima and Nagasaki because I’m the U.S. ambassador. I believe that I should go to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a U.S. citizen.


In December 2016, then-Prime Minister Abe made an official visit to Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. Six months later, President Obama visited Hiroshima as the first U.S. president. Just like this, we can complete the circle by moving closer to each other.


Japan-U.S. alliance making evolutionary changes


Bungeishunju: I would like to ask you about the Japan-U.S. alliance. Some people in Japan wonder whether the U.S. would really go into action if China attacked the Senkaku Islands. Could you share with us your frank opinion on this? 


Ambassador: I am frank about everything. The U.S. President has made clear the U.S. policy, so there is nothing for me, as the U.S. ambassador, to say. There is no ambiguity in the Japan-U.S. alliance. This is crystal clear to the U.S., Japan and China as well.


Bungeishunju: Some people point out that the Japan-U.S. Alliance is a one-sided alliance and is for the U.S. to unilaterally provide protection to Japan.  What do you think is needed for this alliance to continue in the future? 


Ambassador: For the last 40 to 50 years, the Japan-U.S. security treaty has centered on the idea of “alliance protection.” But in recent years, with regards to Japan’s strategic thinking and actions, I think the Japanese perception of the alliance has evolved. One concrete example is that Japan is moving into “alliance projection” to actively engage in the Indo-Pacific region. In this approach, as an equal and full ally of the U.S., Japan is committed to upholding common values, such as a common recognition of laws and regulations, respect for other nations and acknowledgement of their sovereignty and rights on an equal footing regardless of whether they are big or small. Japan is in the midst of a major overhaul of its strategic thinking.


I want to make clear. When this kind of topic is being discussed, many people tend to conclude that this has something to do with the “military,” but that is not necessarily true. It covers a range of aspects, spanning from economic freedom and equal opportunity to business transactions based on international rules.  


For example, while we are having this interview here, Sri Lanka is collapsing under a massive amount of debt. This is the consequence of wrong choices made by the government there, but it is also true that China burdened the country with a huge amount of debt. Pakistan is in a similar situation. The wrong choices it made are inviting a calamity. 


I will elaborate on China afterwards, but what I want to stress here is that Japan needs to understand that it must become an equal partner of the U.S. to ensure it stays as rich in potential in the future as it has been in the past. We are happy to know that Japan understands this and has already begun taking action.


Let me stress here again. Japan has demonstrated its leadership in the international arena and played a key role in the Indo-Pacific region based on common values and ideals. This has benefited Indo-Pacific nations, and we should continue to make this effort to ensure the region will continue to benefit from it. 


Japan’s role in a “free and open Indo-Pacific”


Bungeishunju: Japan has been protected under the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella since the end of World War II. But former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo proposed the idea of “nuclear sharing” in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What is your take on that?


Ambassador: My opinion about this issue may not be so important, because Prime Minister Kishida has already expressed his view on it. On the other hand, it is important to consider what actually should be done to enhance the deterrence capability aside from nuclear sharing. Regarding the issue, too, Prime Minister Kishida has explained the necessity of a series of investments related to military and strategic deterrence. We fully support his idea.


Bungeishunju: Do you think there is a possibility of Japan and the U.S. sharing nuclear weapons as NATO does?


Ambassador: I won’t take the bait! (laughter) I will answer the question from a little bit different perspective.


In the strategic aspect, Japan is doing a string of things that are necessary to strengthen the deterrence capability, such as increasing the budget for overall defense including counterstrike capability. Japan is now reviewing its strategy. I think Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden did a good job in that respect. Actually, the review will be formalized in the near future. That framework does not include or require nuclear weapons.


Another good job of the prime minister and the President was to establish a viewpoint that sees both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and the Indo-Pacific region as one area. Previously, they were regarded as different regions. But now people in Europe think a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is related to their national interests. Japan is exercising leadership among them. Also, the newly established view prompted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea to be aware that what is happening in Europe is related to their strategies.


Mutual “favorable impression” is the asset of Japan and the U.S.


Bungeishunju: What is the pressing issue for Japan and the U.S. to make their alliance stronger?


Ambassador: Of course, there are military issues, but equally important are people-to-people exchanges. An opinion poll conducted about two months ago showed that 98% of Japanese people have positive views about the United States. Also, an American opinion survey found that Canada, the UK, France, and Japan ranked among the top four most favorably rated countries by Americans. In addition, it was found that 84% of Americans view Japan positively. This is amazing. I think these results indicate that Japan and the U.S. have something like a deep common awareness and sense of value. I believe the bilateral relationship needs to be strengthened based on these common features.


I also believe that we can cooperate a lot in the energy sector. The U.S. can export its abundant natural gas from Alaska and the western part of the country for a stable energy supply in Japan. Furthermore, research and cooperation will also be important for small modular reactors (SMRs) and hydrogen energy, areas in which Japan plays a leadership role.


Yesterday (July 14), Panasonic Holdings said it will make the largest-ever investment in electric-vehicle batteries in the U.S. There are many opportunities in the energy sector to further strengthen our friendship and alliance, including R&D projects and joint investments.


Excuse me. (The Ambassador stands up.) This chair hurts my back, so I will answer your questions standing up. Don’t worry, the interview is not over yet. (laughter) I think I should get a new chair as a contribution to the next ambassador who will be sitting on this one. (laughter)


China ignores international rules


Bungeishunju: I’d like to ask you about China. How do you view China’s hegemonic behavior in recent years?


Ambassador: You need to get ready because it will take me until next Tuesday to finish answering the question. (laughter) I think the U.S. should speak frankly about China, because many people lack an understanding of the country.


In the past two decades, China benefited the most from a system based on international rules. At the same time, China has committed the largest number of violations of international rules.


These international rules allowed China to pull millions of its people out of poverty.


But during the process, the country repeatedly broke the rules, stealing other countries’ intellectual property, bullying other countries, and engaging in oppressive behavior. So while the international system has brought benefits to its people, the Chinese government has repeatedly engaged in behavior that destroys the system based on international rules.


China has a rich culture and things it can boast of to the world. But the problem is the culture is handled roughly under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.


Bungeishunju: You mentioned Sri Lanka earlier. Do you think Sri Lanka is a victim of China’s Belt and Road Initiative?


Ambassador: A pattern emerges when we look at Sri Lanka and other countries suffering from huge debt, including Pakistan, Laos, Ethiopia, and Zambia. All these countries are about to be crushed by the massive debt imposed by China. As a result, their economic growth and other potential was nipped in the bud. The situation is similar in all these countries.


Then there arises the question of what caused this situation. The governments of these countries made the wrong decisions. The root of the problem is that China is not following international standards for transparency or accountability.


“You fool me once, and there won’t be a next time”


Bungeishunju: There are high expectations for the Quad as an economic and security framework to counter China. With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, a difference in attitude toward Russia has arisen between India and the other Quad members. What do you think needs to be done for the four Quad members to act in sync going forward?


Ambassador: I trust that question is a joke?! (laughter) The Quad is an established collaboration between four likeminded countries. Its core objective is to ensure “the Indo-Pacific stays free and open.” That is the basis of the Quad.


China is wary of the Quad because it highlights that China has no allies and is isolated and because it does not allow them to dictate how the world will operate. This is not just for military and economic reasons. The political strength of the United States, Japan, Australia, and India united in common purpose is a threat to China. The Quad does not aim to have China see it as a threat, but China sees it as one. Why? Because they see the Quad as not allowing them to take the initiative [and dictate to the rest of the world how the world will operate].


Bungeishunju: Do you think the difference in opinion with India will be able to be overcome?


Ambassador: Yes. No question.


Bungeishunju: What conditions will China have to meet to participate in world trade and market frameworks? Is there a possibility China will join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF)?


Ambassador: In the U.S., there is a saying that “you fool me once, and there won’t be a next time.”


What have we learned since China acceded to the World Trade Organization (WTO)? China abuses all the rules they are obligated to abide by. No country engages in the type of economic espionage that China does. No country commits the type of intellectual property theft that China does. No country but China changes the system only for their advantage and in a way that undercuts market mechanisms.


Knowing this, it would, I think, be unrealistic to invite China into international trade and market frameworks and to expect it to abide by the rules.


China has brought this on itself. Other countries followed the rules and they tried to include China, but China betrayed that trust. China has brought this down on itself.


When I was a congressman, I had a company in my district that manufactured stepladders used by carpenters. China stole that company’s patent and then mass-produced and sold imitations at a discount using state subsidies from the Chinese government. I tried to help that company. China steals intellectual property, technologies, and business models. China does these things and wonders why it has no friends. It is because it has betrayed others’ trust time and time again.


China needs to look squarely at “the truth”


Bungeishunju: China attacks the United States by engaging in extremely belligerent and provocative “wolf warrior diplomacy.” The Chinese embassy and consulates in Japan also slander the United States and disseminate information that plays up China’s good parts. How do you handle this kind of Chinese aggression?


Ambassador: I don’t care much about what the Chinese embassy and the Chinese ambassador do. It is the ambassador’s job to represent his nation, and that is true for me as well. To me, the bigger issue is the policies of the Chinese government, rather than the embassy and the ambassador.


The problem for China is that it does not accept truth it dislikes. To look squarely at the truth and accept it is unpleasant and painful sometimes.


Look at the facts, though. Take Europe and what happened in Lithuania over a small thing related to the use of the word “Taiwan.” Just because Lithuania allowed the “Taipei Representative Office” to be named the “Taiwanese Representative Office,” the Chinese government downgraded its diplomatic ties with Lithuania. Seeing this, the European Union has taken the stance of backing up Lithuania.


Take the Indo-Pacific region and what happened with the Philippines. A ruling was made saying “China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea have no legal grounds” based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and still China ignored it.


The Indo-Pacific saw what happened to Australia when it spoke up about [conducting an inquiry into the origins of] COVID in Wuhan. China pressured it by imposing illegal, high tariffs on its agricultural products.


We all have seen these actions taken by China. Many nations are very tired of being coerced by China for having political views it does not like.


Look back over the history of Japan-U.S. relations. We also had things that we could not agree on. We had fierce disagreements about economics. Even in such cases, we worked through the issues. We have worked together on military costs as allies and as friends.


China, however, has only one tool in its toolbox, and that is a tool “to make other countries submit to its will.”


American democracy is alive and well


Bungeishunju: This is my last question.


Ambassador: This is my last answer! (laughter)


Bungeishunju: I would like to ask you about American democracy. People have said that the United States has seen major unrest, and social schisms have deepened since the appearance of President Donald Trump. What was the Trump phenomenon? Is American democracy okay in its current state?


Ambassador: You can have confidence in the American political and democratic system.


Even as I am being interviewed now, you can watch in real time the public hearings on the attack on the U.S. Capitol (January 6, 2021). In other words, the hearings are pursuing the truth in accordance with the democratic system. While it is difficult, the fact that these hearings are being held is proof that the democratic system is alive and well, I think.


Under the presidency of Donald Trump, there was an attempt to erode confidence in this system. The good news is that we are now in the process of restoring that trust.


In the American democratic system, all people are equal and all people are held accountable. There are things we must do going forward to maintain confidence in this system.

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