WASHINGTON – U.S. Ambassador to Japan nominee Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday vowed to work to enhance ties between the two countries as China seeks to “conquer through division,” while signaling expectations toward a possible drastic increase in Japan’s defense spending.
Calling the bilateral partnership the “cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Emanuel, a 61-year-old former Chicago mayor, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “If confirmed, my top priority will be to deepen these ties.”
“China aims to conquer through division. America’s strategy is security through unity. That regional unity is built on the shoulders of the U.S.-Japan alliance,” he added.
The U.S. ambassadorship to Japan has been vacant since William Hagerty stepped down in July 2019 to run for the Senate. The nomination requires Senate approval.
The Senate committee conducted Emanuel’s hearing on the same day as one for Nicholas Burns, a former diplomat and currently a Harvard University professor who was nominated to become the U.S. ambassador to China.
Emanuel, known for his abrasive style and his close ties with U.S. President Joe Biden, welcomed new Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s support for boosting the defense budget, which the country with the pacifist Constitution has kept at around 1 percent of its gross domestic product.
“Willing to go from 1 percent to 2 percent is a sea change in thinking,” the former congressman told senators, adding it would be a “reflection that they know they have a greater role to play and they have greater threats.”
He also said U.S.-Japan cooperation not only in the military realm but also in areas such as climate change, infrastructure investment and intellectual property protection would send a signal to China that America is “strong because of our allies and our unity.”
China’s strategy in its dealings around the world is to ensure a “one-way road to Beijing’s benefit,” Emanuel said, but added that anything challenging a safe, open and values-based international system “must be met with the united force of all our allies and friends in the region.”
Emanuel served as White House chief of staff from 2009 to 2010 for then President Barack Obama, before becoming Chicago’s mayor for two terms from 2011 to 2019.
Burns, 65, said during his hearing that China is seeking to “become the most powerful country economically, politically and militarily in the Indo-Pacific” and slammed Beijing for its assertive behaviors taken against U.S. allies and partners in the region.
“Beijing has been an aggressor against India along their long Himalayan border, against Vietnam, the Philippines, and others in the South China Sea, against Japan in the East China Sea,” he said.
In recent years, Beijing has become more assertive regarding its claim to the Senkaku Islands, a group of Japanese-administered islets in the East China Sea that China calls Diaoyu. It has also been pushing its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Burns also said China’s human rights abuses, or “genocide,” against the Muslim Uyghur minority in the far-western Xinjiang region as well as its “bullying” of Taiwan are “unjust, and must stop.”
Beijing views the self-ruled democratic island of Taiwan as a renegade province awaiting reunification, by force if necessary. It has been stepping up pressure on Taipei, such as by increasing the number of Chinese military planes entering the island’s air defense identification zone.
Burns acknowledged the need to continue to help Taiwan maintain a sufficient self-defense capability, as stipulated in the Taiwan Relations Act, which Congress passed in 1979 after the United States switched its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing.
But he was against revisiting Washington’s longstanding policy of maintaining an ambiguous position regarding the use of military force in response to a Chinese attack on Taiwan.
The “strategic ambiguity” policy was adopted after U.S.-Taiwan relations became “unofficial” in 1979. It is intended not only to deter China from using force against Taiwan but also to deter Taiwan from seeking independence, as neither Beijing nor Taipei can feel certain about U.S. intervention to defend Taiwan should a conflict arise.
“The smartest and effective way for us to help deter aggressive actions by China across the Taiwan Strait will be to stay with the policy that has been in place,” he said.
Burns was undersecretary of state for political affairs, the State Department’s third-ranking official, from 2005 to 2008 under the George W. Bush administration.
He also served as U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization from 2001 to 2005.