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U.S. Ambassador to Japan nominee Rahm Emanuel on Wednesday vowed to enhance bilateral ties as China seeks to “conquer through division,” while welcoming a potential increase in Japan’s defense spending.

Calling the bilateral partnership the “cornerstone of peace and prosperity in a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Emanuel, who served as a top aide to former President Barack Obama, 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,” the 61-year-old 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 65-year-old former diplomat and currently a Harvard University professor who was nominated to become the U.S. ambassador to China.

Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, has proposed ahead of the Oct. 31 general election to possibly increase defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product or higher. Japan, with its pacifist Constitution, has so far kept defense spending to around 1% of GDP.

“Willing to go from 1% to 2% is a sea change in thinking,” the former congressman, known for his abrasive style and his close ties with U.S. President Joe Biden, told senators.

It would be a “reflection that they know they have a greater role to play and they have greater threats.”

Emanuel also expressed eagerness to create a common front with the United States, Japan and South Korea, warning that China, Russia and North Korea are “trying to find cracks and fissures in the alliances.”

Although ties between Tokyo and Seoul remain soured over wartime history issues, Emanuel said the United States and its two Asian allies should focus on addressing the current challenges and threats posed by China and North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.

He said he would like to “make sure that we deal with 21st century issues as allies and partners” and not let the 20th century issues “rob or mug that opportunity.”

Emanuel was White House chief of staff from 2009 to 2010 for Obama, whom Biden served as vice president, before becoming Chicago’s mayor for two terms from 2011 to 2019.

Emanuel, meanwhile, said he will make it a priority to look into the criminal trial of a former Nissan Motor Co. director who was charged with helping Carlos Ghosn understate his compensation.

Greg Kelly, an American citizen, was arrested in Japan on the same day as Ghosn in 2018 on allegations of financial misconduct. Ghosn, who was the Japanese automaker’s chairman and chief of its alliance with Renault SA and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., fled the country in late 2019 by smuggling himself onto a private jet, and now resides in Lebanon.

The trial against Kelly, 65, is in its final stages, with closing arguments scheduled in Tokyo next week. Prosecutors have asked a three-judge panel to sentence the former executive to two years in prison for his alleged role in helping Ghosn hide income. Both Kelly and Ghosn have denied the charges. A verdict is due in March.

“I’ve already started to inquire about this and I want a report on my desk,” Emanuel said. “I’m going to be approaching this subject as a former congressman who knows what it means when you have a constituent at heart.”

Emanuel was responding to a question from Bill Hagerty, the Republican Senator from Tennessee, who himself was recently ambassador to Japan. Nissan’s U.S. operations are based in the state and Kelly resided there.

Burns, the nominee for U.S. ambassador to China, 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 behavior toward 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 long-standing 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.

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