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US Senator Who Served as Ambassador to Japan Lauds Closer Ties but Issues Warning

FILE - U.S. Senator William Hagerty of Tennessee, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is pictured during an interview with VOA on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 14, 2021.
FILE - U.S. Senator William Hagerty of Tennessee, a former U.S. ambassador to Japan, is pictured during an interview with VOA on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 14, 2021.

For the man who represented the United States in Tokyo from 2017 to 2019, Friday's visit to the U.S. capital by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is an affirmation of two years of hard work.

It is not often that U.S. Republicans and Democrats agree about much these days, but former Ambassador William Hagerty, who came home to launch a successful bid for a Senate seat from his home state of Tennessee, is quick to praise President Joe Biden for arranging the White House meeting.

"I'm delighted to see Prime Minister Suga come to the very first face-to-face summit that our new President Biden is holding," the newly minted Republican senator told VOA in an interview this week.

The fact that Biden, like former President Donald Trump before him, chose to meet the prime minister of Japan at the outset of his presidency shows continuity in U.S. strategic priorities, Hagerty said.

"It underscores the importance of the strategic alliance that we hold with Japan," he said. "It also underscores the importance of that region of the world not only to America, but to global security."

Postwar help

Hagerty stressed the lasting importance of U.S. efforts after World War II to help lift Japan from ruins to the top ranks of democratic governance and prosperity.

"After World War II, an unprecedented effort took place. General [Douglas] MacArthur and a team moved to Japan; they oversaw a reconstruction of the Japanese economy. I even found notes from General MacArthur because I lived in the same house that he did while he was there," Hagerty said.

He said those notes revealed extensive efforts, including tireless outreach by the United States to persuade American industries to buy Japanese products in order to lift the Japanese economy.

Sen. William Hagerty
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"We created very favorable trade terms with Japan at that time to encourage the rebuilding of that economy," he said, singling out the 1964 Summer Olympics as a critical opportunity for Japan to reintroduce itself to the world.

"From that point on, the manufacturing capacity and the technological capacity of Japan continued to accelerate greatly; their relationship with America was absolutely vital to that acceleration."

Turning to the present day, Hagerty said the United States and Japan "need to continue to strengthen our strategic alliance" on all fronts: military, economic and diplomatic.

In his new role as a senator, Hagerty is bringing his unique perspective on Japan to bear in his work on the Senate Banking, Foreign Relations, Appropriations and Rules committees. And he issued a warning.

Supply chains

While emphasizing that the two countries need to work together as closely as possible, Hagerty said, "One thing is clear: We need to look at our supply chains very carefully.

"The United States has placed certain Chinese companies on the entities list here to not sell semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China. I want to make certain that Japan understands and underscores the significance of this," he said, "because certain Japanese manufacturers have stepped up their export of semiconductor manufacturing equipment since the United States has blocked the export here.

"We need to be working together," he continued. "Japanese manufacturers should not be undercutting our posture, because we are aligned strategically in terms of dealing with the threat that's coming from China."

"Hagerty is correct," said June Teufel Dreyer, a professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Miami in Florida. Dreyer cited the case of Rakuten Group Inc., an influential player in Japan's wireless network business, whose dealings with a Chinese entity have raised eyebrows in Washington.

"In anticipation that this will come up in the Suga-Biden meeting, Japanese officials have privately briefed U.S. [National Security Council] officials that they're monitoring the situation," Dreyer told VOA.

The professor said the American concern about technology transfers extends beyond its relationship with Japan. "When the U.S. shares its cutting-edge technology with allies, it runs the risk that some of what is shared ends up in the hands of adversaries," she said.

For his part, Hagerty says that compared with four years ago, when he first took up the post as U.S. ambassador to Japan, the strategic challenge facing America "continues to get more serious, particularly with respect to China."

And that, he said, makes it imperative that the United States and its allies work more closely together.