U.S. Representative Hill emphasizes trade, security in Asia trip

by Alex Thomas
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
March 5, 2023

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Rep. French Hill, R-Ark., spent part of the recent congressional recess in Japan and South Korea to discuss the United States' relationships with both countries and multilateral approaches to issues affecting all three nations.

Hill was part of a congressional delegation that met with Japanese and South Korean legislators during the trip from Feb. 20 to Feb. 26. Discussions involving the representatives focused on international security and supply chain problems with concerns intertwined with each nation's connection with China.

Hill's involvement in the trip stemmed from his current service on the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, an independent government body focused on growing the relationship between the two countries.

"We met all during the pandemic by Zoom, but this was our first in-person meeting since the spring of 2019," Hill told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

The congressman's background includes work involving Japan. As a member of President George H.W. Bush's Economic Policy Council, Hill participated in negotiations concerning bilateral trade between the United States and Japan.

The trip also aligns with Hill's current legislative responsibilities as a member of the House of Representatives' Foreign Affairs Committee.

The congressional delegation also is composed of Reps. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who serves alongside Hill on the Japan-U.S. Friendship Commission, Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Maxwell Frost, D-Fla.

"This bi-partisan trip looks to strengthen the relationships between members of the US Congress, National Assembly of South Korea, and the Japanese National Diet," tweeted Frost, the first member of Generation Z elected to Congress.

The House members partook in lateral discussions with members of the National Diet in Tokyo and trilateral conversations in Seoul with Japanese and South Korean legislators.

"These are very active, very engaged members of their legislative bodies," Hill said. "They are highly opinionated, and getting them to have an opinion is not hard."

Hill led a session on supply chain issues, telling the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that American, Japanese and South Korean representatives have shared interest in diversifying each nation's sources of imports. Consumers in all three countries struggled to access products during the pandemic given each nation's dependency on China for goods, and challenges continue as companies address a backlog in orders.

Hill's pitch focused on how American businesses have adopted Japanese practices since the 1980s. Part of those efforts led American companies to pursue the lowest-cost suppliers for products. This strategy reduced the number of suppliers that, according to Hill, simplified ordering procedures but ended in gridlock if something disrupted normal operations.

"All three countries recognize they have major investments in China, and all three countries know that they had trade and economic ties and dependencies with China," the congressman explained.

"The decoupling is underway. I think there was agreement that that's a business challenge for all three nations, and all three nations are engaged in undertaking it. Some have more trouble than others in that regard."

Each country will additionally have to navigate through international security concerns. Hill mentioned China's "more aggressive" military approach in Asia as problematic, citing China's relationship with Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine and its threats against Taiwan. China, which claims Taiwan is part of its country, has exhibited menacing behavior through military demonstrations.

The United States remains committed to Ukraine and Taiwan. The U.S. State Department announced last week the sale of fighter jet munitions and related equipment to Taiwan.

"Two of our most important trading partners are inside the China economic and military sphere of influence," Hill said in reference to Japan and South Korea.

The trip also provided Hill with an opportunity to show off Arkansas. The congressional delegation provided Japanese officials with bottles of sake, an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting rice. Sake originates from Japan, but these bottles contained A Thousand Cranes, an American-brewed sake produced by Origami Sake Brewery in Hot Springs.

"We used it as a really strategic gift-giving opportunity in an Asian culture that loves and adores gift-giving," Hill said.

"I basically said Americans love sake, Americans love Japan, and what's the best compliment you can make? We're brewing our sake down there."

Arkansas is the United States' leading rice-producing state, accounting for half of the national output in 2022. The state is additionally in a unique situation regarding sake; Arkansas and California are the only states producing sake rice.

"Those varieties are rare and hard to get, and we were strategically set with the state having that source of product, as well as Hot Springs having some of the best water in the world," Matt Bell, president of Origami Sake, told the Democrat-Gazette on Friday.

Hill described these conditions as "perfecto."

"We had a dinner party with Rahm Emmanuel, our ambassador to Japan, and we had the whole Japanese Diet members there for the day, and we served Arkansas sake," the congressman said. "It was pronounced quite good by the Japanese that attended."

Bell said the presentation of Arkansas sake justifies his reasons behind brewing sake in the United States.

"It's validation for our team and what we're doing for sake in America, but it's also validation to Japanese culture and the history they have behind sake," he said. "We feel like it's our heavy burden to really make sake in America a beverage of choice versus a beverage that's enjoyed on special occasions in a sushi restaurant."

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