China should not be surprised Washington and its allies in Asia are deepening military ties given Beijing’s aggressive behavior toward many of its neighbors, the US ambassador to Japan said Wednesday in an exclusive interview with CNN.
“You look at India, you look at the Philippines, you look at Australia, you look at the United States, Canada or Japan. They (China) have had in just the last three months a military or some type of confrontation with every country. And then they’re shocked that countries are taking their own steps for deterrence to protect themselves. What did they think they were going to do?” Ambassador Rahm Emanuel said in the interview at his residence in Tokyo.
The US envoy listed a string of what he said were aggressive military actions by China, including “attacks” against India along their shared Himalayan border, Chinese coast guard ships aiming lasers at Philippine vessels in the South China Sea, the firing of missiles into Japan’s exclusive economic zone and the harassment of US, Canadian and Australian aircraft by People’s Liberation Army ships and planes.
Beijing has denied being an aggressor in all those instances and accused Washington of being the primary instigator of heightened tensions in the region.
On Tuesday, China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang warned that “conflict and confrontation” with the US is inevitable if Washington does not change course.
“The US claims it seeks to compete with China but does not seek conflict. But in reality, the so-called ‘competition’ by the US is all-round containment and suppression, a zero-sum game of life and death,” he said during his first news conference in the new post.
“Containment and suppression will not make America great, and the US will not stop the rejuvenation of China,” Qin said.
Japan and South Korea
Emanuel countered on Wednesday that military buildups and exercises by the US and its partners in the Indo-Pacific are not acts of containment, as Beijing charges, but acts of deterrence against further – and possibly more dangerous – Chinese aggression.
“They’ve come together to realize that (Chinese aggression) can’t continue as is, so every country is taking steps, both within an alliance (and) also within their own self-interest of creating a comprehensive coalition of deterrence. That’s what’s going on,” Emanuel said.
He praised Japan for doubling its defense budget and taking on a leadership role in the region, citing plans for it to operate joint South China Sea patrols with the Philippines and its agreement with South Korea just this week to settle grievances dating back to before World War II concerning Japan’s colonial rule in Korea.
And he praised both Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol for putting the future before history and taking a stance that has prompted domestic backlash in both Tokyo and Seoul.
“I do think that both leaders showed a braveness and a boldness to look to the 21st century and make the most of that rather than being tied by 20th century,” Emanuel said.
“To me the test of leadership is to be idealistic enough to know why you’re doing what you’re doing. And then tough enough to get it done,” he said, adding that both Kishida and Yoon had passed that test.
‘Gravitational pull of freedom’
The US ambassador also contrasted the countries Japan has been partnering with, including South Korea, the Philippines, Australia, India and even the United Kingdom, with countries with whom China works, including Russia, North Korea and Iran.
“There’s a phrase in America, you’re known by the company you keep,” Emanuel said.
Over the past 18 months, the Biden administration has been keeping good company, too, he said, noting its record in uniting allies and partners.
Emanuel cited multilateral agreements like the Quad – the informal alliance of the US, Japan, Australia and India – and the AUKUS deal for nuclear-powered submarines between the US, Australia and the UK as well as other economic, diplomatic and military initiatives.
“I think that has given our allies confidence, like Japan, to increase the defense budget, to be more active on the diplomatic arena and stage,” he said, giving credit to Tokyo for getting eight of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a March 3 United Nations General Assembly vote.
Countries around the world will respond to Japan, or South Korea, or the US for a simple reason that China doesn’t understand, “the gravitational pull of freedom,” Emanuel said.
“A rules-based system that upholds respect both for the individual and in trying to uphold freedom has its own, I don’t know how else to say it, but seductive gravitational pull.”
CNN’s Nectar Gan, Emiko Jozuka and Alex Stambaugh contributed to this report.