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International relations

Senate approves Rahm Emanuel as U.S. ambassador to Japan

Former White House chief of staff to fill post that's been vacant for over 2 years

WASHINGTON (Kyodo) -- The Senate on Saturday approved Rahm Emanuel, who served as a top aide to former President Barack Obama, as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan, filling the key post that has been vacant for more than two years.

The 62-year-old former White House chief of staff, known for his close ties with President Joe Biden, will play a crucial role in one of the most important bilateral relationships for the United States amid China's growing assertiveness in the region and North Korea's nuclear and missile threats.

During a Senate confirmation hearing in October, Emanuel vowed to enhance U.S.-Japan ties as China seeks to "conquer through division," and said he would welcome any major increase in Japan's defense spending.

While ties between Tokyo and Seoul remain soured over wartime history issues, he has also called for creating a common front with the United States, Japan and South Korea in dealing with North Korea and other challenges.

The Biden administration views Tokyo as a key player in the U.S. strategy of bringing together allies and partners in the region to counter Beijing's increasing clout. Japan is also a member of the Quad along with the United States, Australia and India -- a group of major Indo-Pacific democracies pressing for a "free and open" region.

Emanuel, also known for his abrasive style, 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.

While the White House has hailed Emanuel's "extensive experience" as a public servant, his appointment to the high-profile ambassadorial role has been contentious among some left-wing Democrats as he had faced allegations of covering up a fatal shooting of a black teenager by a white police officer when he was mayor.

Emanuel was also a member of the House of Representatives from 2003 to 2009.

The ambassadorial post has been vacant since William Hagerty stepped down in July 2019 to run for the Senate.

In March last year, Biden's predecessor Donald Trump nominated Kenneth Weinstein -- then head of the Washington-based conservative think tank the Hudson Institute -- as the next U.S. ambassador to Japan.

But before Weinstein's nomination was put to a Senate vote, Republican Trump was defeated by Democrat Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

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