US Ambassador to Japan speaks to NHK ahead of Japan-US summit

The US Ambassador to Japan, Rahm Emanuel, spoke to NHK in an exclusive interview ahead of the upcoming summit between Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and US President Joe Biden to be held in Washington.

The Ambassador shared his views with Newsroom Tokyo anchor Yoshioka Takuma on the political and economic issues between Japan and the US, as well as how Tokyo's ties with Washington will impact other parts of the Asia-Pacific region. The following transcript of the interview has not been edited.

Yoshioka Takuma: Ambassador Emmanuel, thank you so much for coming to our studio again. First off, the coming US-Japan summit on April 10th. How is it significant? And what does the Biden administration hope to gain from it?

Ambassador Rahm Emanuel: Well, first of all, it comes at a critical moment. I kind of see it as the closing of one era and the beginning of another era: The US-Japan alliance that in the past was defined by alliance protection is now about alliance projection into the region. Japan, in the last two years, has had some of the most significant, momentous changes since the end of the war. Japan has changed five different, 70-year-old policies that were seen as kind of off-limits before. Whether it's adding to, going from one percent to two percent of GDP towards the defense budget, acquiring the capabilities of counterstrike, lifting the ban on exports of defense technology, I mean, you can go on the list.

The same thing for the United States. We had a series of what was referred to as hub and spoke, which is the United States at the center, but a bilateral relationship with Japan. Siloed from a bipolar relationship with Australia, siloed from a bilateral relationship with the Philippines, et cetera, Thailand. Now that's being integrated into what I call a latticework. And at the core of that is the US-Japan alliance, and Japan is now becoming a full partner both on the diplomatic front, defense front and the development front. And when you put all that together, and Japan brings a tremendous amount of resources, assets to that relationship, and to the interest of the alliance being projected in respect for the rule of law. So this could not come at a more kind of critical time, but it really does mark, symbolically, a kind of period at the end of the sentence of one era and the starting, early drafts of a whole new relationship for the US-Japan alliance, in what it means for a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Yoshioka: Mr. Ambassador, thank you so much. Let me go a little bit into specifics. We understand Prime Minister Kishida will speak with President Biden on the command and control of Japan's Self-Defense Forces and US troops based here in this country. Could you elaborate on what this may involve?

Emanuel: Well, you know, obviously that's for them to make public, but I think the way to think about it, in Japan's own defense budget, was the idea of a joint command operation center.

Well, that is more attuned to the era that we're going into. In the same way, it's inspired us to make a change to our force structure and our command structure that's existed for 60 years. It worked at a different period of time. We're entering a different level of competition, a different level of critical strategic challenges, and the old structure is not commensurate with the challenges we're going to face. So we are thinking fresh, that if you start, you know, I always like to say that if you're starting with a blank legal pad, would you have the force structure and the command structure we have? And the answer is no.

So therefore, we're going to have to come up with something, not just something, but something appropriate to the challenge - and also meet where Japan is, because you're doing something that we've always wanted Japan to do. Japan's doing it for their own self-interest as a sovereign nation. But we're going to meet that change with our own level of change that's equal to the strategic challenges the two countries face going forward.

Yoshioka: And let's talk about the change - the ever growing challenges in this region. The White House also plans to host the first ever trilateral summit between the US, Japan and the Philippines. Can we say the main point of this trilateral summit is about countering China's growing influence in the East and South China Seas?

Emanuel: Yes and no.

I think the right way to look at it - at least from our perspective, doesn't mean it's the Japanese perspective if you take what I said about the latticework rather than the hub and spoke system of kind of our, it's a more integrated, more collaborative, more cooperative type of relationship, rather than siloed bilateral relationships.
August of last year, we had a historic trilateral meeting at Camp David. You know, one of China's main strategies is that Japan and Korea can never get on the same page with the United States. That changed in August. Building on that momentum, like a new rejuvenated QUAD, is a Japan-US-Philippine relationship.

Japan has a great bilateral relationship with the Philippines. We have a very good and strong and healthy one, the United States with the Philippines. Combining that would make that, rather than two separate ones - and there will be separate relations for Japan and separate ones for the United States or the Philippines - but bringing the forces, whether that's on Coast Guard, kind of training and practice, whether that's on the economic development in the Philippines, whether that's between Clark and Subic Bay, whether that's also in the area of training people for the semiconductor industry from an engineering perspective, So there is a lot that can come from this, and the trilateral is one on the diplomatic side, another one on the development side, economic to the Philippines, and then also on the level of collective deterrence to ensure that the Philippines' claims, as ruled by the International Court in their favor, that we stick to that.

Yoshioka: OK. And what is your view on China's President Xi Jinping's handling of government and party? I still remember that two years ago we had this, you know, interview session, you told me that China's economic strategy is a failure. So what is your observation right now?

Emanuel: Well, the failure is in the fact that you have a mass, a major problem of overhang of housing. You have 11 million unfinished units. You have many municipalities are on the brink of bankruptcy. Nobody really knows the true number of the youth unemployment.

I would say to you, the way I look at it, both economically, politically, etcetera, is you've gone from one-party rule to one-man rule. And you live and die by that man's judgment.

Be honest, he was wrong about COVID. He's wrong about the ending of COVID. He was wrong about the way he has handled a series of changes to the economy and then not responding to those structural challenges, whether that's in the area of housing, whether that's in the fiscal overhang on the municipal levels, whether that's in the debt level - and also in the sense that right, now when you look at solar panels, electric vehicles, steel, China is exporting their domestic economic challenges to the rest of the world.

Brazil's now filed a WTO complaint on steel, Thailand has filed a WTO case, Europe has filed a WTO case, all against China. So, what are they doing? They're in the midst of exporting their economic problems, domestic problems to the rest of the world and the rest of the world is going to push back. And so, you do have a situation where the main concern for China somewhat is around the area of domestic tranquility.

But I do think their mismanagement is now creating more conflicts in the region - a China that's more in challenge with India, Philippines, Japan, the United States, Australia - and also the fact that you have it all coming down to one person's view.

And you better hope they get it right, because they are not brooking, willing to accept anybody to challenge their judgement. That is what President Xi has done.

Yoshioka: And you often emphasize how strong the US-Japan alliance has become, like transforming from alliance protection to alliance projection, but a recent case in the news makes it seem like Japan is being deemed, seen as a potential adversary, not an ally. President Biden said last month he opposes plans to sell US Steel to the Japanese firm Nippon Steel. My understanding is that the US government can intervene in investments in acquisitions by foreign companies only when such deals could undermine US national security. So could you tell us how could this business transaction pose a threat to the US?

Emanuel: First of all, let's go into the thrust of the question, which is, you know, four weeks before the President made that announcement, the President also announced that Mitsui, the company, would get all 20 billion dollar contracts to replace all our port cranes. All of them. Now, I don't know what says "trusted ally" more than a 20 billion dollar contract to a single Japanese company. So the ports on the East Coast, the West Coast will all go to a single company to build all the cranes to operate those ports. And it's a Japanese company.

Yoshioka: Is that a national security issue?

Emanuel: Well, it is a national security issue from the standpoint of the fact that China was using the data of what we were, what was coming in and out of the country, because they were gathering data on America's economics. Yes, it is a national security interest. Second, in 2021, when there was a foreign company looking at Toshiba, Japan stepped in and said out of national security that cannot happen.

So, when the shoe was on the other foot, Japan responded.

So, the third thing I would say is the US-Japan alliance is a lot deeper and stronger than a single commercial transaction. We can, I mean, I understand you as a journalist want to say, OK, here you have this great alliance, but you have this situation. But four weeks earlier - not four years, four weeks earlier - a Japanese company won one of the largest single contracts from the United States government to ensure that our cranes at all our ports were secure and safe. And we gave it to a Japanese company because we trust Japan. So when you put all that together, I would just say it's a commercial transaction. It doesn't, it's a focus of yours or the other media, but it doesn't define the depth and strength of our relationship.

Yoshioka: But for the, in terms of this specific case, US Steel on the Nippon Steel acquisition case, some are saying that one factor behind the opposition is that US Steel is headquartered Pennsylvania, a swing state, and the workers' union, are, you know, against the deal ahead of the presidential election in this November. How much of the opposition to the deal is about politics, not business?

Emanuel: Well, again, I want to remind you, I'll answer that question. But you have to tell me how much was the Toshiba - when you, when Japan decided to block that transaction - was about commercial versus politics. OK. So, if I said here, it had nothing to do with it, that couldn't be true. Do I think it's 100 percent of the definition? No. Do I think it factors in? Absolutely. That's welcome to the relationship between business, politics and commercial interests. Yeah.

But I don't, but I wouldn't sit here and say that's all it's about, any more than the national security interest that Japan claimed when Toshiba was being up for sale and a foreign company was thinking of buying it and it was blocked.

It had, it touched a political nerve, a cultural nerve, and Japan stood in in the middle - the Japanese government.

Yoshioka: Well, why I'm asking this question is that the, not just people in Japan, but the people in the Asia-Pacific are intensely concerned by the direction of US politics. I know that the US ambassadors are not able to comment on the US presidential elections...

Emanuel: But you’re going to ask the question anyway.

Yoshioka: In a different way. But how can you assure countries in the Asia-Pacific that the, you know, as you say, US continues to be a reliable partner? But we, you know, another fact is that the, you know, we're going to see the great uncertainty or possibly drastic policy change that we may see down the road.

Emanuel: So, one is in the last 4 1/2 years, the number one investor in the Japan economy, foreign investor, is the United States - whether that's IBM, whether that's Micron, whether that's Eli Lilly, whether that's financial entities. Number one.

And that speaks volumes about the United States and our commercial and business relationship with Japan. And inversely, the number one foreign investor in the United States are Japanese companies, which also speak volumes about the confidence Japanese companies have in the United States market. That's a deep tie. Could it change? Well, nothing's always certain, but it is, but on the commercial level, a vote of confidence by both communities in the other one's market and the fact that there's a rule of law that operates. And the reason you have a capital inflow into Japan, principally - not, but not limited, but principally - from the United States, is because in another country, China, you have the rule of one.

And that's very erratic in China. And Japan, because you have the rule of law - it's certainty and its steadiness in which the United States, both financial and other commercial interests, are willing to then invest, for the long haul.

You got to, you know, today's world, you got to look at politics. And you got to look at the country, the other way to look at it, not just commercial interest, financial interest: tourism. And the United States continues to be, and American citizens continue to be, number one or close to number one tourists here to Japan. So there's a lot of depth here, and then there's a cultural attraction that both countries share the same national pastime - baseball. Japanese players have taken American baseball by storm. And that also has, sports also has, a huge political, diplomatic initiative.

Which is why - think about it, when you step back for a second - the opening baseball season was held in Seoul between the Dodgers and the Padres. On the Padres was a Korean player. On the Dodgers, obviously, was a Japanese player. There was also a Japanese pitcher for the San Diego Padres. And they're all playing in Seoul. That tells you also something.

And so, I think when you look at this, I'm not going to say that politics is totally walled off from commercial interest. That wouldn’t be honest. On the other hand, it's not so determinative that commercial interests don't continue at a level of absolute vote of confidence. And I want to come, I do keep coming back at it, because Mitsui winning that contract for 20 billion dollars from the United States government, I can't think of anything more that says trust and valued partner, and one of the largest contracts the United States government gave out for their own port and economic security.

Yoshioka: When we look at the rest of Asia, here's an interesting survey just released on this Tuesday that the, a new survey by the Singapore-based think tank ISEAS, questioning about 2,000 researchers, government officials and others from ASEAN countries. The results show more people in Southeast Asian countries would opt for China over the US, if forced to choose sides between the two superpowers. This is the first time in this survey for China to overtake the US. Do you have any idea why the results may have changed?

Emanuel: It was, you know, just a year ago. I'm not, First of all, I don't know that survey, but a year ago the most trusted country in the ASEAN area was Japan.

Yoshioka: At this time, as well.

Emanuel: Yeah, in this year, which benefits the US and Japan alliance tremendously, because of the public support for Japan. Now that was of government officials, so we're comparing apples and oranges. One is of government officials, which I don't trust very much. The other one is of the people and the public, which is actually essential and important in that area. The United States was in the area, in the region, at least a year ago, averaging a little above 50 percent, China was averaging around 20-some odd percent, and Japan was averaging somewhere in the middle of 60 percent.

So here, what I can say to you - I can't tell you and I haven't studied that survey - but I can tell you it's a day-in and day-out process in which we want to communicate our values and shared interests, and one that surveys government officials as opposed to the public has some information to it that's important, but not as important as where the public opinion is. And I can tell you, China, among the public in a number of countries in Southeast Asia, is not seen as a good neighbor.

Yoshioka: Let me bring up the conflict in Gaza that started with Hamas brutal attack on October 7th. Japan's response to the issue has not always been in step with the United States. In fact, the US policy, I would say, has differed compared to those of many other countries, including G7 nations. The Biden administration stresses the importance of rule of law. But because of its continued support for Israel, which has been deemed to be violating international humanitarian law, the credibility of the US in this region has been undermined. Do you think so? And then many are saying this, you know, this is a typical example of America's double standard. How would you respond to those voices?

Emanuel: Well, I mean, you kind of glossed over it, kind of quickly. You know, like I'm for a ceasefire, I'm for the one on October 6. There was a ceasefire. Everybody who’s calling for a ceasefire today. What was wrong with October 6th? You had 20,000 people from Gaza working in Israel, more than in Japan, more than in any Arab country. And 1,200 people were killed. Now here I'm in a country, you have 120 abductees, nobody gave up on Japan's abductees in North Korea.

The United States stands with Japan. You had women raped and mutilated. So, the violation of law started on October 7th. That does not give Israel a pass to violating the law in the prosecution of their own self-defense. Hamas is a designated terrorist organization by the United States and many, many European countries. Again, that doesn't, because they're terrorists, or that doesn't permit Israel to do anything they want to do. The United States has a long-standing relationship with Israel, also a judgment about Hamas and how they operate.

There have been five ceasefires, of which five of them have been violated by Hamas. So, as I'd like to remind people, when you want to have a permanent ceasefire, you describe to me how you create permanent, when five times has been violated by one party.

Yoshioka: So, the, recently, several opinion polls show that public opinion in the US has been shifting.

Emanuel: Nobody, look, nobody likes to see this. Nobody wants to see kids starve. Nobody wants to see this conflict.

Nobody wanted, and I, you know, I also, there's a flip side to this. It's never black and white. You look at all those tunnels built underneath Gaza. How many schools do you think could have gotten built for those tunnels? How many hospitals could have been built for those tunnels? All the things that could have led, Israel left the Gaza Strip in 2006. In the last, basically, 20 years, more tunnels were built than schools. More tunnels were built than hospitals. Again, it's horrible what is happening to the people of Gaza. Horrible. Initiated by Hamas, a terrorist organization designated by not just the United States but many of the EU countries.

Yoshioka: So you're not fully supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu?

Emanuel: Well, you don't know my history, but when I was chief of staff, one of the people Prime Minister Netanyahu attacked regularly was me. So, I would, I do think though, before everybody talks about, I want to, like you did, a ceasefire, there's been five. All violated by one party. So, if you, I'm open to listening and I'll spend the extra 20 minutes even though your staff's over here saying it's over. You tell me what would be permanent. How do you negotiate a permanent ceasefire, when five in the last 20 years' development violated by one party?

So, I'm open to all this and the United States, the President, has articulated the fact of self-defense that happened when Israel was attacked by Hamas, with repercussions in the same way that we believe Ukraine has the right to self-defense because they were attacked by Russia.

Yoshioka: Ambassador Emanuel, the time is up.

Emanuel: I was just getting into my role.

Yoshioka: We really appreciate it, and have a safe trip back to Washington, and I'm looking forward to the result of the US-Japan summit.

Emanuel: Thank you very much. Thank you for having me. Thank you very much.

Yoshioka: Thank you.

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