U.S.-Japan Relations in the Biden Era: A Conversation with Rahm Emanuel
NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 7 — On October 20, U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel joined Asia Society Policy Institute Vice President Daniel Russel for a conversation about the past and future of U.S.-Japan relations. Emanuel has served in Japan for two years, through traumatic shocks such as the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, as well as major accomplishments like the 2023 G7 Hiroshima Summit.
“What is the case that you make as to why Japan as a nation is so important to the U.S.?” Russel asked Emanuel to open the conversation. Emanuel made it clear that strong relations between the two countries are imperative to addressing recent challenges to the world order. “First and foremost, [Japan is] in one of the most important regions in the world,” says Emanuel. “It’s a tough neighborhood. You’ve got China, North Korea, Russia’s trying to play a bigger role as a sidekick to both of those countries.”
Furthermore, Japan is “extremely popular in the Indo-Pacific,” says Emanuel. “That has value to it.” Japan is a big player with countries like the Philippines — where it is the number one foreign investor — and that has significant implications for influencing policy in the South China Sea. Japan has also improved relations with South Korea, evident in the 2023 Camp David trilateral summit, which Emanuel calls a “seismic shift” in the power balance of the Indo-Pacific. “One of the premises that China had was that the U.S., Korea, and Japan could never get on the same page, and we’ve done that.”
Japan’s economy is now the third largest in the world, and, according to Russel, addressing “economic security … goes to the heart of Japan’s survival and viability.” Emanuel agrees, emphasizing the concentration of industry in Japan: “They bring an engineering and work ethic that is pretty unparalleled...Japan is the supply chain of the supply chain. They have 18 companies that have anywhere from 40% or greater market share in their domain.” He noted that Japan has launched an ambitious effort to revitalize its semiconductor industry, leveraging Western attempts to de-risk their economies from China. Tokyo Electron is a major player in manufacturing a specific part of semiconductor machinery, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company is currently building two plants in Japan, and Micron is currently undergoing a major expansion in the country.
Japan’s role in the Indo-Pacific is changing, and Emanuel believes that it imperative that the U.S. views the country as an ally that they stand shoulder to shoulder with — not a junior partner in the region. “We, as a country, strategically, defense-wise, economically, we have to think of a new and kind of modernized way we approach Japan and the region,” says the ambassador. “It is a different country than it was twenty years ago, as are we.”
Japan has recently abandoned their long-standing commitment to keeping defense spending under 1% of their GDP, announcing last year that they plan to increase it to 2% by 2027. While previous generations of Japanese have remained committed to limiting the use of force after World War II, Emanuel contends that younger Japanese are “not totally captured by the past” and support building up the military. This has come alongside an increased willingness to call out acts of aggression on the global stage. “Back in 2022, Japan organized all the ASEAN countries and eight out of the ten ASEAN countries voted to condemn Russia, [and] that is an illustration of a more confident Japan going side by side with us as we project into a region a set of policies,” says Emanuel.
“Japan wants all of America, not just part of America. Economically, militarily, diplomatically, politically. It’s because they know an untethered China is a real risk to them and they need America — all of America,” Emanuel told Russel. Closing the conversation, the ambassador reiterated his deep belief that the U.S. cannot let down its allies in a time of such turmoil. These allies want “to make sure that the America they know is the America that is going to be there tomorrow.” To ensure them of this, the U.S. needs to update its strategic calculations in the Indo-Pacific, prioritizing relations with Japan.