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In Japan, Trump talks tough, yet ‘friendly,’ on trade

President Trump ramped up his tough rhetoric against North Korea as he arrived in Japan Nov. 5, saying the U.S. and its allies are prepared to defend freedom. (Video: Reuters)

TOKYO — President Trump continued his tough rhetoric on Monday, his second full day in Asia, using a meeting with business leaders in Japan — his first stop on a five-country, 12-day swing through the region — to push for more fair, open and reciprocal trade with Japan.

After noting that “for the last many decades, Japan has been winning” and that “the United States has suffered massive trade deficits with Japan, for many, many years,” Trump forcefully argued for better trade terms between the two nations, but assured his audience that he would proceed in a “friendly” way.

“We want fair and open trade, but right now our trade with Japan is not fair and it’s not open — but I know it will be, soon,” he said Monday, speaking at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Japan. “We want free and reciprocal trade, but right now our trade with Japan is not free and it’s not reciprocal, and I know it will be.”

Trump’s comments came a day after he delivered a speech to hundreds of U.S. troops at Yokota Air Base, shortly after Air Force One touched down here. Although he never mentioned North Korea by name, the president offered a similarly strong message — this one focused on pushing the region to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions.

Donning a military-style bomber jacket Sunday, Trump told the assembled troops that they will have his administration’s support “to fight, to overpower and to always, always, always win.”

“Together with our allies, America’s warriors are prepared to defend our nation using the full range of our unmatched capabilities,” Trump said. No one — no dictators, no regime, and no nation — should underestimate, ever, American resolve. Every once in a while, in the past, they underestimated us. It was not pleasant for them, was it? It was not pleasant.”

Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have a scheduled bilateral meeting, where they will discuss security and trade, and a news conference later Monday. But Trump's tough talk in Japan seems aimed at establishing the tone for his five-nation tour through the region, during which he confirmed that he is likely to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump told reporters during his flight here that he wants “Putin’s help on North Korea,” as his administration attempts to consolidate support for its strategy to pressure Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons program.

“History has proven over and over that the road of the tyrant is a steady march towards poverty, suffering and servitude,” Trump told the troops, probably referring obliquely to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, whose name he did not mention. Noting that he has proposed a bigger military budget, Trump surveyed the uniformed troops in an air base hangar and declared, “We’ve got a lot of stuff coming — use it well.”

In early November, President Trump will embark on his first presidential visit to Asia. The Post's Ishaan Tharoor previews the ambitious trip. (Video: Joyce Lee, Ishaan Tharoor/The Washington Post)

The boisterous scene, during which the troops cheered and chanted “U.S.A.!” was closely watched in capitals across Northeast Asia, where governments from Seoul to Beijing are looking for signals of how Trump will address the threat on his first trip to the region. The president’s heightened rhetoric aimed at North Korea and the Kim regime has set the region on edge over concerns that increasing tensions could result in a military confrontation.

Trump heads to Asia where concerns are growing over possible war with North Korea

On the plane, Trump told reporters that he plans to decide “very soon” whether to label North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism. The North spent 10 years on that list before being removed in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration for meeting nuclear inspection requirements. Pyongyang later violated the agreement.

But Trump also offered encouragement for North Korean citizens, calling them “great people.”

“They’re industrious, they’re warm, much warmer than the world really knows and understands,” he told reporters on the plane. “They’re great people and I hope it all works out for everybody. And it would be a wonderful thing if it could work for those great people, and for everybody.”

And he seemed unconcerned about the prospect that North Korea might use his trip to the region to demonstrate its military might by firing a missile. “We’ll soon find out,” he said. “Good luck!”

In an interview published later Sunday, Trump said he would be open to direct talks with Kim but emphasized that it “remains far too early” for such an idea. “I don’t think it’s strength or weakness; I think sitting down with people is not a bad thing,” he told journalist Sharyl Attkisson, host of the “Full Measure” TV show. Last spring, Trump also said he was open to talks with Kim; more recently, after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said he was probing for direct channels of communication with Pyongyang, Trump wrote on Twitter that such a strategy was a waste of time.

“Save your energy, Rex,” he wrote. “We'll do what has to be done.”

As Trump arrived in Japan, North Korea warned him not to make “reckless remarks” during his trip to Asia, saying that the “unstable” president risked inviting “nuclear disaster into the U.S. mainland.”

“Nobody can predict when Trump does a reckless act,” the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of North Korea's ruling Workers' Party, said in a commentary published Sunday. “The only and one way for checking his rash act is to tame him with absolute physical power.”

If Trump misjudged North Korea and dared to “act recklessly,” Pyongyang would be “compelled to deal a resolute and merciless punishment” to the United States, the newspaper warned in its typically verbose style.

After speaking at the air base Sunday, Trump spent the day with Abe, playing nine holes of golf, although a White House official said they did not keep score. At the golf course, Abe took pains to ensure that Trump felt comfortable: He presented Trump with white baseball caps with the embroidered words: “Donald & Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater,” which both men signed, and he served Trump, who can be picky about his food, a burger specially made from American beef.

The golf outing aimed to re-create the bond the two men forged during Abe's visit in February to Trump's Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where they played a round. It was while the two leaders dined together that evening that Kim launched a missile test, prompting an angry condemnation from both men at a joint statement to reporters in Florida.

Some national security experts have cautioned that Kim could choose to conduct another test during Trump's 12 days in the region to try to upstage him.

“North Korea's goal is not to simply acquire horrific weapons to maintain the status quo,” said a senior White House official, who briefed reporters in Tokyo on the condition of anonymity. “They are seeking these weapons to change the status quo. Their primary goal is to reunify the Korean Peninsula and these weapons are part of the plan.”

Trump, who had spent Saturday night in Honolulu and toured Pearl Harbor, seemed in buoyant spirits Sunday. He wore an unbuttoned, open-collared white shirt with no tie to chat with reporters on Air Force One, and he enthusiastically donned the brown leather bomber jacket presented to him by Air Force officers at Yokota.

“I like this better,” he joked, after replacing his navy blue suit coat.

Four reasons Trump’s Asia trip is so important

Trump confirmed that he expects to meet with Putin, probably on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, later in the trip. The meeting would come as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s probe into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia has heated up. Last week, Mueller indicted three people in Trump’s orbit — two senior campaign aides and one lower-level, unpaid volunteer — as part of his ongoing investigation.

But the president, who has often expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders, has remained reluctant to criticize Putin.

The president also promised that trade will also be a key focus of his trip, with China — a frequent target of his trade-related ire — looming largest on the economic front. Chinese President Xi Jinping consolidated power last month at the 19th Communist Party Congress, and Trump is preparing to face a newly emboldened Xi on his home turf.

“I think we’re going in with tremendous strength,” Trump said. When a reporter asked him about Xi’s elevated position, the president cut off the questioner, saying, “Excuse me, so am I.”

He then rattled off a laundry list of highlights of U.S. power, including the surging stock market, low unemployment and success in combating the Islamic State in the Middle East.

“I think he’s viewing us as very, very strong, and also very friendly,” Trump said. “But we have to do better with trade with China because it’s a one-way street right now and it has been for many years. And we will. But the reason our stock market is so successful is because of me. I’ve always been great with money.”

President Trump’s five-country tour of Asia

President Donald Trump greets servicemen after arriving aboard Air Force One, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam in Honolulu. (Jamm Aquino/The Star-Advertiser via AP)

Trump noted that he will spend the first anniversary of his Election Day victory in Beijing on Wednesday, and he facetiously invited the traveling press corps to help him celebrate.

“Can you believe it is almost exactly one year?” he said. “We’ll have to celebrate together.”

The president didn't even let a question about a new book that includes sharp criticism of him from former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush spoil his good mood.

“I’ll comment after we come back,” he said. “I don’t need headlines. I don’t want to make their book successful.”

President Trump’s five-country tour of Asia

President Donald Trump greets servicemen after arriving aboard Air Force One, Friday, Nov. 3, 2017 at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam in Honolulu. (Jamm Aquino/The Star-Advertiser via AP)