SUGA’S RESOLVE TO LEAD TESTED IN COMING SUMMIT WITH BIDEN
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will meet President Joe Biden in Washington on April 16 for their first summit. Suga said on an April 4 tv news show that Biden’s choice of him to be the first foreign head of state to meet face-to-face is “proof that the Biden administration attaches particular importance to Japan.”
Biden’s decision obviously reflects no small expectation the US has for Japan as its ally in the Pacific, including support for Washington’s scheme to implement “carbon neutral” initiatives globally.
In charge of America’s decarbonization program, which could change the world’s industrial structure in a flash, is John Kerry, former secretary of state who has been named Biden’s climate ambassador.
Kerry visited Britain, Belgium, and France March 8-10 for consultations with his European counterparts, reaching agreement that global corporations in these respective nations will make public whether they are fulfilling their social responsibility in the manufacturing process—specifically, protection of human rights and contribution to decarbonization.
The US and Europe already have agreed to commit to protecting human rights as a cornerstone of their relationship with China. Corporations are being closely watched to see if they are protecting human rights in all aspects of their activities. Global corporations in the US and Europe, for example, are expected to report whether products from forced labor in China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region are included in their supply chains. More than 1 million Muslim Uyghurs are reportedly incarcerated in Xinjiang reeducation camps.
Corporations will also be judged by their commitment to decarbonation. Having developed a keen sense of crisis over China’s lead in the development of electric cars and fuel cells, the US and Europe have put forward the idea of a life cycle assessment (LCA) to put a check on China. It is a strategy designed to exclude Chinese products, such as batteries, from the market if it is ascertained that coal, which emits a large amount of CO2, was used to manufacture them. This will put terrific pressure on China—but on Japan as well, depending on the situation.
Commented Professor Masahiko Hosokawa of Meisei University, who appeared on my weekly “Genron” Internet tv news show as a guest last Friday (March 26):
“The evolving situation should not be viewed simply as environmental. It may look so on the surface, but it is actually an entirely different story. What actually is going on is a clash of industrial competitiveness on the world stage—a fierce major war on the economic security front.”
Human Rights Is Mightiest Weapon
Japan hurriedly kept pace with Biden’s carbon neutral initiatives and is now ready to write its own carbon neutral goal into law, with Suga having declared that Japan will be carbon neutral by 2050. But what Japan should have done is play a part in coming up with such a set of rules as those just worked out between the US and Europe. That is a role Environment Minister Shinjiro Koizumi should have played in the first place. But I wonder if he is aware of that.
In Belgium, Kerry confidently remarked on March 9:
“If two of the world’s strongest markets are joining together to move in this direction, we think that can have a profound impact. What’s taking place is bigger than a slim majority on Capitol Hill.”
The political power base of Biden’s Democratic Party may not be ideal, but corporate America is positive about decarbonization, with related new technologies being vigorously developed. Even if the Republicans should object, the Democrats are gaining confidence now that things are beginning to get cracking. And the Biden administration is steadily securing agreement from other members of the international community who wish to see China honor the human rights and carbon neutral criteria set by the powerful the US-European team.
To pursue this goal, the Biden administration has put together a team of experts who are tough on China. For instance, the new US Trade Representative (USTR) is Katherine Tai, known for her extremely rigid posture toward China’s repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In the 2021 President’s Trade Agenda and 2020 Annual Report submitted to Congress on March 3, Tai stipulated that China’s human rights violations are the administration’s top priority and that it will consider adopting a “carbon border adjustment mechanism” (CBAM) based on life cycle assessment to further promote decarbonization.
Tadae Takubo, a strategy expert who was another guest on my news show, asserted:
“Human rights is becoming the free block’s strongest weapon against China. Amid the fierce confrontation between the world’s two biggest powers, human rights is China’s weakest point, which puts the US in a stronger position than in their military confrontation.”
Key members of the incumbent administration, including Biden himself as well as Tai and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, are human rights advocates. The purpose of Kerry’s visit to European nations ahead of any other nation was clearly intended to form a consensus among US allies to strategically utilize human rights as the core of America’s new foreign policy.
Where does the Japanese government stand in terms of China’s human rights? While the Biden administration has defined China’s repression of Uyghers as genocide, Japan is the only country among the G-7 nations that has yet to slap sanctions against China. Pressed to explain why, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato recently told newsmen: “There are no rules under which we can impose sanctions that are directly and explicitly connected to human rights issues.”
Japan has frequently appealed to the international community for support in its efforts to obtain release of its citizens abducted by North Korea, describing the abductions as “unpardonable human rights violations and blatant terrorism.” When Suga visits the White House, can he possibly tell Biden that Japan will have to let pass China’s rampant human rights abuses just because there are no rules?
Suga’s Mettle Will Be Tested
Biden is also expected to call on Suga to show Japan’s resolve as regards possible contingencies involving Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Admiral John Acquilino, US Pacific Fleet Commander, said during his confirmation hearing in Washington on March 28: “My opinion is that this problem is much closer to us than most think and we have to take this on.”
On April 4, popular commentator Toru Hashimoto asked Suga during a tv news show:
“Would it be possible for Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense in tandem with US forces (if a conflict develops over Taiwan)? In such a case, would it be possible to judge it as ‘a situation that jeopardizes the existence of Japan,’ as the 2015 peace and security law stipulates? After all, your predecessor Shinzo Abe put himself on the line to enact it.”
The Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are authorized to counterattack an enemy should the government define a given situation as one “jeopardizing Japan’s existence,” as Suga put it. But if the situation is interpreted instead as one that “significantly affects Japan’s peace and security,” the JSDF would not be allowed to fight but be assigned to logistically support US and other military forces.
To this pivotal question Suga only replied: “In my position, I will refrain from answering your hypothetical question.”
But Hashimoto persisted, further querying the prime minister: “Does that mean you are unable to say whether the situation we are talking about would jeopardize the existence of Japan?” Giving Hashimoto a brief but hard stare, Suga said tersely: “I have already answered your question.”
Over the years, Suga has stated that Article 5 of the US-Japan Security Treaty applies to the Senkakus, that it is natural for Japan to defend its own territory, and that Japan has the primary responsibility to defend the islands as a sovereign state. If so, shouldn’t the JSDF naturally be expected to engage in combat in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait? A conflict in Taiwan would automatically make the whole of Japan the target of Chinese attacks. The stronghold of America’s Asian defense is the cluster of American bases in Okinawa, including Kadena Air Base, which China would undoubtedly target first and foremost. Therefore, the JSDF would hardly be limited to logistics support, which alone would hardly serve our national interests.
The coming summit in Washington will be an historic occasion during which Japan’s resolve will be tested over such issues as climate change, human rights, and Taiwan/the Senkakus, among other things. Suga must put his political life on the line and show his mettle as head of an independent nation and America’s vital ally in the Pacific.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 946 in the April 15, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)