Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe greets Speaker of the House John Boehner and Vice President Joe Biden before making his remarks to a joint session of Congress, the first such speech by a Japanese leader. Image: Flickr user Speaker John Boehner

Asian Leaders Have a Rich History of Addressing Congress

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe became the latest Asian leader to address both Houses of Congress after speaking to a joint session last month, highlighting the strong relationship between the United States and countries in Asia. In fact, since the Obama Administration announced its “Rebalance to Asia” policy in 2011, leaders from the region have addressed joint sessions five out of the eight times such speeches occurred. Prior to that, 2005 was the last time an Asian leader spoke to a joint-session when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh made an address. In addition, leaders from Asia have made more than 60 official trips to the US since President Obama has been in office, while the president has made 26 visits to Asian nations, accounting for approximately one-third of all of his international visits.

Prime Minister Abe’s visit was the 77th official visit since 1951 by a Japanese leader, and his speech to a joint session of Congress was the first of its kind by any Japanese leader, though it was the fourth speech to any chamber. Shigeru Yoshida was the first Japanese Prime Minister to address either chamber when he spoke to the Senate in 1951. Mr. Abe’s grandfather, Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi spoke to the House of Representatives in 1957, as did Prime Minister Hayato Ikeda in 1961. Three earlier speeches were delivered by Japanese officials to House Receptions, including the first by Ambassador Tomomi Iwakura in 1872. Prior to his visit and speech, the first diplomatic interactions in Washington between the United States and Japan occurred in the summer of 1860 when a group of 77 samurai were sent by the Japanese government.

The 1872 House Reception speech delivered by the Japanese ambassador, however, was not the first by an Asian diplomat. That occurred in 1868 when Anson Burlingame came to the United States as the envoy from China, after originally serving as the American envoy to China in 1861.

In total, there have been 117 joint meeting addresses delivered by foreign leaders and dignitaries to the Congress. About 15% of those joint sessions and nearly a quarter of the House Reception speeches have been given by leaders from the Asia-Pacific region, with the first instance occurring in 1954 when South Korean President Syngman Rhee spoke. In fact, South Korea has had six presidents address joint sessions, the highest number of any Asian nation, and only leaders from France, Great Britain, Israel, and Mexico have spoken more frequently. The most recent was President Park Geun-hye’s address to Congress in 2013. President Park’s speech made her one of only twelve women to have addressed a joint session and one of just four from Asia, along with leaders from Australia, the Philippines, and Pakistan. Her visit marked the 35th time a Korean leader made an official trip to the US.

Indian prime ministers, meanwhile, rank second in Asia in terms of addresses to joint sessions of Congress, with four such appearances and a total of 28 official visits. The most recent was a September 2014 visit by current Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In addition, President Obama became the first president to visit India twice while in office, and he was the first ever to be the guest of honor at India’s Republic Day celebration when he visited in early 2015.

Australian leaders have spoken three times to joint sessions, with the most recent instance in 2011. Prime Minister Robert Menzies also spoke twice in the 1950s to House Receptions, which only included attendees from that chamber. Overall, Australian leaders have made official visits to the US 57 times. Leaders from the Philippines have also addressed Congress three times and have made 23 official visits.

Two different presidents from Afghanistan have given speeches to joint sessions, with the most recent occurring in March, 2015 when Mohammad Ashraf Ghani came to Washington. Afghan leaders have made 22 official visits. Leaders from Pakistan have visited more than 40 times and have twice made speeches to both houses of Congress. In addition, leaders of Singapore, Thailand, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, and now Japan, have all addressed joint sessions of Congress once since the 1950s, and leaders from each of these countries have made at least five official visits to the United States since 1931.

Nate Schlabach is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and a recent graduate of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University.