Prime Minister Shinzo Abe laid out his vision for deeper Japanese involvement in Asian security and global diplomacy on Wednesday in a historic speech to Congress.
He made a pitch for one of the linchpins of that expanded role: the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive free trade deal that the United States, Japan and 10 other countries are now negotiating.
Abe’s argument echoed the case President Barack Obama has made to Democrats who are skeptical of the deal. He said it’s a chance to raise labor and environmental standards in poorer Pacific Rim countries that are otherwise falling into China’s economic orbit.
“In the Pacific market, we cannot overlook sweatshops or burdens on the environment,” Abe said.
Abe’s speech comes the day after he and Obama said in a joint press conference that they are pushing for a swift conclusion to the years-long negotiations on the Pacific Rim pact.
However, the two largest economies in the deal still have complicated issues to work through. The United States is seeking much-easier access to Japan’s automotive and agricultural markets — and those differences have slowed progress on the broader deal.
“There are many Japanese cars in America; I want to see more American cars in Japan as well,” Obama said Tuesday.
The Japanese leader’s visit to the United States, which has included meetings with Obama and visits to the Arlington National Cemetery and the Holocaust Memorial, comes 70 years after the conclusion of World War II.
His country has had a pacifist constitution since then, staying out of fights overseas. And Abe offered condolences, telling Congress that “history is harsh. What is done cannot be undone.”
“My dear friends, on behalf of Japan and the Japanese people, I offer with profound respect my eternal condolences to the souls of all American people that were lost during World War II,” he said.
But Abe — who seized power in 2012, pledging to revitalize Japan’s flagging economy with an approach that’s come to be known as “Abe-nomics” — also outlined a broader role for Japan on security issues.
He said Japan will now “now hold up high a new banner that is ‘proactive contribution to peace based on the principle of international cooperation.’”
Protesters outside the joint meeting of the House and Senate criticized Japan’s leader for failing to offer a direct apology for the Japanese military’s use of “comfort women” in Korea and China during World War II.
Instead, Abe’s reference was indirect.
“Armed conflicts have always made women suffer the most,” he said. “In our age, we must realize the kind of world where finally women are free from human rights abuses.”