TOKYO >> The United States is working with Japan and other likeminded countries to counter China’s efforts to use its economic might to force political change around the world, the U.S. ambassador to Japan said Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.
Rahm Emanuel, who was previously mayor of Chicago and chief of staff for President Barack Obama, is pushing what he calls “commercial diplomacy,” the idea that the United States and Japan will be more eager to do business with each other and with similar secure and stable countries amid worries caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and Chinese economic coercion.
“From intellectual property theft to coercion to debt dependency that China creates, the idea that they could actually honestly say, ‘We don’t coerce,’ and then you have not one, not two, not three — many worldwide examples where they use their economic market access to force a political change in a country … I think everybody’s woken up to that,” Emanuel said in the interview at his residence in the heart of downtown Tokyo.
Emanuel, who arrived in Japan in January, laid out a number of examples of Chinese coercion, including with Japan, which saw Chinese shipments of rare earth metals blocked over a territorial dispute; South Korea, which suffered Chinese business boycotts when it installed a U.S. missile defense system; Australia; and countries in Europe and Southeast Asia.
China’s growing economic importance and spending abroad have rattled those countries, which worry that Beijing is increasing its strategic and political influence in their traditional spheres of influence.
China has become one of the biggest lenders to developing countries through its “Belt and Road Initiative” to expand trade by building ports, railways and other infrastructure across Asia, Africa and the Middle East to Europe. This has prompted accusations Beijing is using debt to gain political leverage, but Chinese officials deny that.
China has been more assertive about pressing other governments to embrace Chinese-led initiatives including a trade group, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.
Emanuel said that finding ways for Japan and the United States to stand up to Chinese economic coercion was one of the first issues he raised with Japan’s foreign minister.
Japan has expressed deep worry about increased Chinese activities in regional seas, including near a Japanese-controlled island claimed by Beijing, and has pushed for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.
Emanuel praised Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s pledge of a “significant increase” in both the country’s defense budget and its military capabilities.
Kishida’s attempts to revise Japan’s national security strategy and basic defense guidelines are a legacy of his hawkish mentor, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was assassinated in July.
Kishida has also said he is open to the development of possible preemptive strike capabilities, which opponents say would go far beyond Japan’s war-renouncing constitution, which restricts the use of force to self-defense. Kishida also has proposed significantly increasing Japan’s defense budget — possibly doubling to 2% of GDP, a NATO standard — over the next five years.
“Much to the prime minister’s credit, he looked around the corner and realized what was happening in this region and the world — Japan needed to step up in ways it hadn’t in the past,” Emanuel said.
Emanuel also mentioned economic opportunities for Japan and the United States in electric vehicle batteries, energy, new research and technology in small modular nuclear reactors, aviation technology and semiconductors.
The business leaders whom he has met with as ambassador to Japan would have evaluated a capital expenditure decision in the past purely by considering cost, logistics and efficiency, he said, but they are now willing to pay more to avoid sanctions and instability.
“That is a major change in thinking,” he said.
For “the last 20 or 30 years, cost and efficiency were the driving factors. They drove public policy, and they drove corporate decisions. Today cost and efficiency are being replaced, supplanted by stability and sustainability,” Emanuel said.