For both Japan and the US, the blossoming cherry trees in Washington, D.C. this year are heavy with symbolism. A long, grim winter has passed, likely the last during which either country will be as burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Likewise, each nation is moving forward with renewed hope under new central leadership. As President Joe Biden pledges to rebuild relationships with traditional allies, Japan is determined to leverage this moment to forge even deeper, more influential bonds with the US.
In Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s first speech marking the start of the year’s parliamentary session, he said that Japan is prioritizing working with members of the international community, the US in particular, “to exert leadership in creating a post-corona international order.” At a time when the world faces unprecedented global challenges, cooperation between both nations could shape the future for generations to come. “The Japan-US alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy and security, and the foundation of freedom, peace, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and the international community,” Suga told lawmakers.
“The Japan-US alliance is the foundation of freedom, peace, and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region and the international community.”
How does Japan envision this new era? As before, shared values with the US – human rights, free trade, prosperity and protecting regional security – are at its core. But now, Japan’s government is highlighting the urgency of new international norms for the digital age as well as the need to fight climate change. Just like Biden, Suga has pledged to make Japan carbon neutral by 2050.
Dealing with China’s growing power will no doubt be a challenge for both countries. Japan’s approach is firm but cooperative. Acknowledging that stable Sino-Japanese relations are critical, Suga pragmatically says that “we will insist on what we should insist on… and work together to resolve common issues.” In his first call with Suga, President Biden expressed his “unwavering commitment” to the defense of Japan, including in the Senkaku Islands, which are subject to a territorial dispute with China and Taiwan. In the call, both leaders also pledged to work towards the complete denuclearization of North Korea.
Japanese leadership, committed to multilateralism, breathed a collective sigh of relief when the US re-joined the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris climate accord. Recognizing strengths and weaknesses of global bodies, they hope more US involvement can aid their push for reforms, particularly in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Since Japan donated cherry trees to Washington in 1912, the country’s mark on the US has grown exponentially. In 2019, Japan became the largest foreign investor in the US. Strengthening economic ties, particularly around technology like 5G and AI, is another of Suga’s priorities.
Interview with Koji Tomita, Japanese Ambassador to the United States
As the United States embarks on a new political era with President Joe Biden, Japan has appointed Koji Tomita to be its highest representative in the nation. Fresh from his role as ambassador to South Korea, Tomita had previously served in the Japanese embassy in Washington DC and headed the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s North American Affairs Bureau from Tokyo, where he worked closely with the Obama administration. In his new post as US Ambassador, Tomita aims to deepen Japan’s partnership with America and leverage the long-standing alliance to tackle shared global challenges such as the pandemic, security, rapid technological development and climate change.
How would you describe the current state of Japan-US relations and how they have evolved over the past four years?
The Japan-US alliance has developed, of course, into one of the closest alliances in the world. In fact, it’s never been better. I’ve seen it in my own lifetime. My history with the US dates back to 1977, when I studied at Davidson College in North Carolina for a year. I was probably the only Japanese person for 20 miles or so until you got to Charlotte. Later, I worked at the Embassy in Washington and served in Tokyo in various capacities related to Japan-US relations. So I’ve been fortunate to witness some of the historical advances in the Japan-US alliance.
The change over those years has been remarkable. Today, the cooperative relationship between Japan and the US encompasses not only security but also economic, social, and human exchange. Together, we are responding to various challenges in the international community. Prime Minister Suga and President Biden have confirmed that they will work closely to realize a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” continue the “Quad” initiative among Japan, the United States, Australia, and India, and cooperate on global common issues, such as climate change, COVID measures, and innovation. It’s more than diplomatic jargon. The relationship is always moving forward.
President Joe Biden has pledged to put traditional allies back at the core of foreign policy. What opportunity does that open to strengthening the Japan-US alliance?
Yes, I think there is an opportunity, even when relations are very good. As I mentioned, Prime Minister Suga and President Biden have already confirmed they will cooperate both bilaterally and on issues common to the international community. I think we can take the initiative in the regional frameworks, such as Japan-US-Australia, Japan-US-India, Japan-US-South Korea, as well as in the G7 and G20.
“Even as the international order is facing major changes, the values of freedom, democracy and human rights remain unchanged. In order to defend these common values, Japan and the US need to collaborate more than before.”
Even as the international order is facing major changes, the values of freedom, democracy and human rights remain unchanged. To defend these common values, Japan and the US need to collaborate more than before, and I hope to keep in close contact with the Biden Administration.
Under the last administration, the US withdrew from the WTO, the WHO, the Paris Accords and the TPP. What is Japan’s stance on multilateralism and how would you like to work with the Biden government to reinforce global cooperation?
Japan has long been a strong believer in multilateralism and trusts that we can work on global issues together. I think that solidarity among the international community is especially called for at this very minute because of the pandemic.
Regrettably, it is also a fact that multilateralism is under scrutiny and its effectiveness questioned. Thus, to address these challenges, it is important that Japan and the US lead the efforts in enhancing the effectiveness of international cooperation and focus on producing meaningful outcomes.
Prime Minister Suga has told President Biden that Japan welcomes the US decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement, the reversal of withdrawal from the WHO, and the announcement of a joint COVAX Facility. Our two leaders have affirmed that Japan and the US will continue their collaboration on the challenges that the international community faces, such as climate change, measures to combat COVID-19 and innovation. So all that is a vote for multilateralism.
In the area of economy and trade, Japan will continue to cooperate with the United States to resolve various issues. Japan has consistently recognized the crucial role the US plays in the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region. We continue to believe that it’s important for the US to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CP)TPP.
In PM Yoshihide Suga’s first phone call with Joe Biden, they touched on three main issues: security in the Indo-Pacific region, climate change and the pandemic. How would you describe Japan-US cooperation in the fight against COVID-19? And what specific areas do you envision for bilateral cooperation in public health in the months and years to come?
Tackling the pandemic is the top priority for the Biden Administration. It is also the biggest priority for Japan. Japan is fortunate that about 500 public health centers nationwide have supported our COVID-19 measures, especially contact tracing to identify the infection route. The foundation of Japan’s current health system was established with the cooperation of the United States soon after the end of World War II. In the wake of the global health crisis, we would like to promote Japan-US cooperation on this front once again.
We have various possibilities for cooperation on public health, including infection prevention measures in daily life, prediction of the spread of the pandemic, global distribution of vaccines, long-term R&D on infectious diseases, and the strengthening of cooperation in international frameworks such as the WHO. We would like to seize every opportunity to promote cooperation.
“China’s attempts to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea and other areas are intensifying and contributing to a severe increase in tensions.”
In the call, Biden committed to protecting the Senkaku Islands under the security alliance. Why is that important?
Here is the situation: China’s attempts to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea and other areas are intensifying and contributing to a severe increase in tensions. President Biden has expressed his unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan, including the application of Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty to the Senkaku Islands. He has also reaffirmed the United States’ determination to provide extended deterrence to Japan. My government considers this statement of intent to continue strengthening the deterrence capability of the Japan-US alliance under the Biden Administration to be highly significant and essential.
In terms of climate change, both Japan and Biden have recently upped their commitments to reducing CO2 emissions. How can the two countries work together to accelerate the global transmission to greener economies and help meet the Paris Accord targets?
Japan recognizes that tackling climate change is the key to growth and that advancing a virtuous cycle of environmental protection and economic growth is the way to move forward. As such, technological innovation will be a driving force in advancing this goal.
“Advancing a virtuous cycle of environmental protection and economic growth is the way to move forward.”
Needless to say, Japan welcomes the Biden Administration’s return to the Paris Agreement. Prime Minister Suga recently outlined Japan’s goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, which means net zero emissions of greenhouse gases, which is a goal shared with the United States.
In achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, as well as helping decarbonize society globally, I think it is critical for Japan and the US to collaborate on research, development and deployment of advanced technologies. I am talking about technologies relating to hydrogen, carbon capture and utilization (CCUS)/carbon recycling, clean energy infrastructure and nuclear power. We also seek to reduce the carbon emissions of developing countries so that we can solve global climate change.
What is the current level of bilateral cooperation in other aspects of science and technology? Where do you see opportunities to strengthen that partnership?
The level of cooperation is quite high, and we have a very strong relationship when it comes to science and technology, in particular. I would say that we are most focused on the emerging fields of quantum science and technology, artificial intelligence and space which, of course, will be key future industries. In immediate and specific terms, Japan-US cooperation can help us overcome the pandemic and climate change.
“In immediate and specific terms, Japan-US cooperation can help us overcome the pandemic and climate change.”
And let me mention 5G, which is expected to serve as an infrastructure for innovation and even solve issues in industry, medicine, education, automated driving and disaster response. Japan and the US share the goal of deploying secure and trusted 5G networks globally so we will strengthen our cooperation with an eye on 6G in the future.
What are your thoughts on Japan´s digital strategy in the medium and long term? In what ways has the pandemic turbocharged these plans and how could US partners benefit from Japan´s digital vision?
Creating a digital society is a key priority for the Suga administration. Japan is preparing to establish the Digital Transformation Agency in September, which will serve as the command center for promoting digital reforms. We are promoting the digitization of public administration, remote work, telemedicine, distance learning and so forth. We intend to share the success of these efforts because they can be applied to the United States and other partner countries. As for COVID-19, the pandemic has made us all more digital and pushed us further and faster than before. So I guess some good things can come even out of bad situations.