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Japan Ambassador Lays Out US Summit Priorities

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., April 15, 2021.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga arrives at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., April 15, 2021.

The following is the full text of an interview with Koji Tomita, the Japanese ambassador in Washington, conducted this week in advance of a visit to the White House by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. An article based on the interview is also being published.

VOA: What is the significance to Japan of the upcoming summit between President (Joe) Biden and Prime Minister (Yoshihide) Suga? What would Japan like to see happen at the summit? Will we see new evidence of closer cooperation between Tokyo and Washington in regional and global affairs?

AMBASSADOR KOJI TOMITA: This is the first in-person Japan-U.S. summit for both leaders, an event that has always been important in setting a positive tone for our overall diplomatic relationship. We are also honored that Prime Minister Suga will be the first leader of a foreign nation to hold a face-to-face meeting with President Biden since he took office in January. Considering the circumstances with the COVID-19 pandemic and regional affairs, this meeting has an even higher profile than usual. I'm confident that both Prime Minister Suga and President Biden are going to rise to that challenge and build on the foundations of our strong relationship on a number of key points.

FILE - Then-Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Koji Tomita, left, arrives at the foreign ministry in Seoul, March 6, 2020.
FILE - Then-Japanese Ambassador to South Korea Koji Tomita, left, arrives at the foreign ministry in Seoul, March 6, 2020.

First, the leaders will coordinate the strategy needed to further strengthen our alliance, and to realize a "Free and Open Indo-Pacific." This is particularly important as the security environment in the region has become increasingly severe. President Biden and Prime Minister Suga will be building on the strong joint statement released following the recent "2 + 2" meetings in Tokyo, which endorsed the enhancement of the deterrence and response capabilities of the Japan-U.S. Alliance.

We are very encouraged by President Biden's active engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, as exemplified by the historic first Quad Summit meeting that he hosted. The international order is being challenged in various ways, so we hope to continue having specific discussions on the ways that Japan and the U.S. can take initiative in realizing our shared vision.

Second, Japan fully supports President Biden's resolve to revert to multinationalism and to restore leadership in the international community. A multinational approach is critical for many of the challenges facing us today, and I expect the leaders to discuss our shared strategy in a number of these areas.

Climate change will certainly be one of those topics, especially in view of the Leaders Summit on Climate later this month, and the COP26 (United Nations Climate Change Conference) conference this November. Both Prime Minister Suga and President Biden have placed climate change policy at the center of their agendas, so I expect a substantial discussion during their meeting. I think this will be very productive, as they share a common vision on the topic, associating climate policy with economic growth realized through new investment, job expansion and innovation.

FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, March 18, 2021.
FILE - Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a press conference in Tokyo, March 18, 2021.

Multilateralism is, of course, also important in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic, including the distribution of vaccines to countries in need. Japan and the U.S. have closely cooperated on the pandemic response so far, so this will be another important topic to be discussed.

Finally, as I mentioned, the visit will be a perfect opportunity for Prime Minister Suga and President Biden to a build a personal relationship and trust, as the leaders of our countries have always done.

The Japanese people admire President Biden's warm personality, which will obviously be a big part of this initial encounter. We will never forget his visit to the affected area right after the 3/11 Great East Japan Earthquake 10 years ago. I was actually there for that visit, and I greatly appreciated the way that he consoled victims and gave them a sense of hope.

I think Prime Minister Suga has a lot of similarities to President Biden, as a leader who did not inherit a political support network and had to build up his career through politics by themselves. Prime Minister Suga's strength is that he understands the life of ordinary citizens and feels their joy and pain. I think these shared personal traits will lead to a solid rapport, which will allow them to tackle the tough questions that they must face together.

VOA: Many see Japan as taking a more proactive approach in the security (e.g., the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue/Quad) and political realms (e.g., recent pronouncements concerning human rights issues in China) alongside the United States and other democratic nation-states, compared with a more economics and trade-centered approach. Could you explain the rationale behind this? To what extent does this have to do with Beijing's rising power and posture?

TOMITA: As the strategic environment around Japan has become increasingly complex and uncertain, we need to utilize an increasingly complex set of policy responses, using everything in our diplomatic and security toolkits. Today we are faced with a variety of nonconventional threats, including cyberattacks, terrorism, trade restrictions and threats to the freedom of navigation that endanger critical sea lanes. Japan places importance on multilateralism and aims to realize a "united world" that collectively tackles challenges facing the international community.

While some of these challenges require us to develop new approaches, I think that it is important to note that continuing to build economic and trade ties will be key to addressing all of these areas. The progress of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the entry into force of the Japan-U.K. Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement have contributed to the establishment of a free and fair economic order. As this year's chair of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Commission, Japan will lead the discussions for the steady implementation and expansion of the TPP. As shown in the leadership that Japan is assuming, we will continue to be proactive on the trade front as well.

China's growing economic and military influence is an important part of this changing landscape, but our approach, including our growing partnership with the Quad, is not directed toward any specific country. Our strategic goal has always been to maintain the peace and prosperity of the entire region. In this regard, the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance has never been greater.

VOA: China, or the People's Republic of China governed by the Chinese Communist Party, has been described as an adversary by the last U.S. administration and a competitor by the current one; rivalry between Washington and Beijing has been cast as a rivalry between democracy and autocracy. The European Union describes its ties with Beijing as one of "simultaneously (in different policy areas) a cooperation partner, a negotiation partner, an economic competitor and a systemic rival." How does Japan see China/the PRC?

TOMITA: While China is a growing topic in Washington, D.C., these days, I can assure you that as a country situated nearby, China is always a big presence for Japan. With the world's second-largest economy, and a population of 1.4 billion, I think that China actually has the capacity and the responsibility to make positive contributions to efforts to solve global issues.

I therefore think it is in everyone's interest to have stable relations with China. Having said that, we have to build that relationship on the basis of frank and open discussion, so we have to be honest with our Chinese friends about our concerns with certain aspects of their behavior, including trade practices, and the human rights situations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. From Japan's perspective, it is particularly troubling to see their maritime practices, which attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the region.

I think our approach to China has been very consistent. We are seeking a stable relationship with China, but at the same time, will continue to be very clear about our concerns. And as I mentioned before, this is one of the areas where a multilateral approach will be critical: Japan isn't alone in navigating our relationship with China, any more than the U.S. is.

VOA: U.S. allies with both Japan and the Republic of Korea and consistently calls for Japan and ROK to work more closely together, toward shared strategic goals in the region and beyond. You served as Japan's ambassador to ROK before coming to Washington. In your view, do Japan and ROK share enough common strategic goals in the region and beyond to exercise the political will to put history behind, to address the trauma from wartime to a satisfactory degree, and work more closely together?

TOMITA: Before I came to Washington, D.C., this year, I was the Japanese ambassador to the Republic of Korea, and with that experience in mind, I can assure you that the ROK is an important neighbor which shares democratic values with Japan. We believe that the trilateral Japan-U.S.-ROK relationship is key to the peace and stability of the region, and we will continue to engage with our Korean friends for the maintenance of trilateral solidarity and coordination on issues like North Korea.

I think many Americans who read updates from the region would be surprised by the extremely high levels of exchange that flourish between our two countries. From a deep economic relationship to people-to-people and cultural exchanges, the ties between Japanese and Koreans are actually very robust, although currently constrained due to COVID-19.

However, it is fair to say that Japan and ROK are going through a difficult patch due to a few outstanding issues. These issues originate from some recent Korean court decisions that are not in conformity with Japan-ROK agreements and the principles of international law.

My answer to your question would be yes, Japan and ROK share so many common strategic goals in the region. But we must say that what is at stake at the moment is the very basis of our diplomatic relations in the postwar era. We would like to protect the foundation on which we have developed our relations, and this is why we are asking the Korean government to take firm action to prevent these issues from damaging our overall relationship.