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Japanese PM Fumio Kishida urges unity in address to US Congress

Kishida highlighted the value of the U.S. commitment to global security and offered reassurances that Japan is a strong partner.
Japanese PM Fumio Kishida urges unity in address to US Congress
Posted at 6:42 PM, Apr 11, 2024

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida addressed U.S. lawmakers at the Capitol on Thursday, urging them to consider the importance of global commitments at a time of tension in the Asia-Pacific and deep skepticism in Congress about U.S. involvement abroad.

Kishida is in Washington this week visiting President Joe Biden as the White House completes hosting each leader of the Quad — an informal partnership between the U.S., Japan, Australia and India that is seen as important to countering China's growing military strength in the region. Kishida highlighted the value of the U.S. commitment to global security and offered reassurances that Japan is a strong partner.

On Capitol Hill, his audience included many Republicans who have pushed for the U.S. to take a less active role in global affairs as they follow the “America First" ethos of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The Republican-controlled House has sat for months on a $95 billion package that would send wartime funding to Ukraine and Israel, as well as aid to allies in the Indo-Pacific like Taiwan and humanitarian help to civilians in Gaza and Ukraine.

“As we meet here today, I detect an undercurrent of self-doubt among some Americans about what your role in the world should be,” Kishida told Congress.

He sought to remind lawmakers of the leading role the U.S. has played globally since World War II. After dropping two nuclear weapons on Japan to end the war, the U.S. helped rebuild Japan, and the nations transformed from bitter enemies to close allies.

“When necessary, it made noble sacrifices to fulfill its commitment to a better world,” Kishida said of the U.S.

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said earlier this week that he hoped Kishida's visit would underscore “that we’re in a worldwide situation here against the enemies of democracy — led by China, Russia and Iran.”

Japan has taken a strong role in supporting Ukraine's defense against Moscow as well as helping humanitarian aid get to Gaza. It is also seen as a key U.S. partner in a fraught region where China is asserting its strength and North Korea is developing a nuclear program.

“Japan is a close ally — critical to both our national and economic security,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a statement. "This visit will continue to deepen the diplomatic and security relationship between our two countries and build on the strength of decades of cooperation.”

Kishida offered reassurances that Japan is also committed to global security and human rights. He said that since recovering from the “devastation of World War II,” Japan has transformed from a reticent ally to a strong partner “standing shoulder-to-shoulder” with the U.S.

The prime minister called China’s stance “unprecedented” and “the greatest strategic challenge, not only to the peace and security of Japan but to the peace and stability of the international community at large.”

Kishida was also attending a U.S.-Japan-Philippines summit on Thursday in another effort to bolster regional cooperation in the face of China’s aggression. The United Kingdom also announced Thursday that it would hold joint military exercises with Japan and the U.S. in the Indo-Pacific next year.

Beijing has pushed back strongly on those actions during Kishida's visit.

Mao Ning, the Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said, “Despite China’s serious concerns, the U.S. and Japan attacked and smeared China on the Taiwan question and maritime issues, grossly interfered in China’s domestic affairs and violated the basic norms in international relations.”

Meanwhile, Kishida cast the future of the conflict in Ukraine as having far-reaching consequences. He emphasized that Japan has committed to providing Kyiv with $12 billion in wartime aid, including anti-drone detection systems.

“Ukraine of today may be East Asia of tomorrow,” Kishida told lawmakers, and later added: “Japan will continue to stand with Ukraine.”

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The statements drew standing ovations from much of the chamber but a group of hardline conservatives remained seated. Other lawmakers skipped the speech and Capitol staff filled empty chairs with congressional aides.

Those moments encapsulated the pressure that House Speaker Mike Johnson is facing as he searches for a way forward for the foreign security package. It will be a difficult task to navigate the deep divides among Republicans. Making matters worse for the Republican speaker, he is already facing the threat of being ousted from the speaker's office.

Kishida, who was elected in 2021, arrived in Washington while facing political problems of his own in Japan. Polls show his support has plunged as he deals with a political funds corruption scandal within his ruling Liberal Democratic Party. The nation's economy has also slipped to the world's fourth-largest last year, falling behind Germany.

This is the first time a Japanese prime minister addresses Congress since Shinzo Abe traveled to Capitol Hill in 2015. Kishida is the sixth foreign leader to address Congress during Biden's presidency.

He relished the moment and highlighted his ties to the U.S. He told lawmakers how he spent his first three years of elementary school in New York City while his father worked there as a trade official. Lawmakers applauded and laughed as he recalled American pastimes like attending baseball games and watching the Flintstones.

“I still miss that show,” Kishida told them. “Although I could never translate, ‘Yabba dabba doo.’”

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