The key takeaways? Predictably, the visit was more about ceremony than about policy substance, but it highlighted important dimensions of current U.S.-Japan relations.
1. U.S.-Japan trade talks have been temporarily delayed
While the media attention has focused on U.S.-China trade, U.S.-Japan bilateral trade talks are also ongoing. Abe and Trump did not discuss substantive details of a U.S.-Japan pact, but they did address timing. Both agreed to “accelerate” the trade talks in line with the U.S. desire to conclude an agreement as soon as possible — but Trump also publicly commented that the deal would wait until after July. This delay is significant because it allows Abe to steer clear of controversial concessions to the United States until after he has finished navigating a potential double election.
Trump has incentive to help Abe politically, since ensuring stable government seems likely to help smooth the negotiation process. And if Japan offers enough of the right kind of concessions in politicized sectors such as agriculture and automobiles, this could also help Trump to please his own domestic audiences.
When the United States withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement in 2017, it forfeited important Japanese trade concessions. Washington wants those concessions and more in the upcoming bilateral talks, as Trump made clear with frequent comments about the trade imbalance during his visit.
Aside from the potential concessions, talks with Japan will set expectations for negotiations with other U.S. trade partners. The Trump administration argues that imports of automobiles and auto parts harm U.S. national security because they hurt domestic producers and their ability to invest in new technologies. Japan and the European Union have six months to negotiate new deals with the United States before Washington imposes tariffs on these imports.
2. Security cooperation is generally strong — and expanding to new frontiers
3. But the allies continue to suffer from mixed signals
The two leaders’ symbolic displays of the strengths of the U.S.-Japan relationship danced around latent tensions in the security arena — as illustrated by their divergent treatments of the North Korean issue. For Japan, Trump’s visit was an opportunity to coordinate policy and keep Tokyo’s views in the picture — and minimize chances that Japan will be surprised by future developments in U.S. talks with North Korea.
Japan scored at least one win. Trump met with the families of Japanese abductees on Monday, reaffirming U.S. support for securing the return of Japanese citizens kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 1980s. This was a political boon for Abe, who has been an advocate for the abductees’ return since early in his career.
However, the visit also exposed worrying gaps in the allies’ perspectives. Trump minimized concerns about North Korea’s recent short-range missile tests, claiming that he was personally not bothered by them. But the missiles that Trump dismissed as “small weapons” pose a serious threat to Japan due to its proximity to the Korean Peninsula. Abe hedged. He expressed “great regret” over the tests and insisted that they violated U.N. policy, yet he also maintained that Japan and the United States are “perfectly aligned” with regard to sanctions.
Abe and Trump pulled off a showy demonstration of the bonds between their two countries. In addition to the personal rapport between the two leaders, the U.S. and Japan share many common interests — as well as common adversaries. However, Trump’s trip also revealed persistent and troubling areas of divergence on issues such as trade and North Korea.
The United States and Japan will eventually have to tackle these disagreements. But with this visit, that day of reckoning seems to have been postponed a while longer.
Kristi Govella is an assistant professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, an adjunct fellow at the East-West Center and a National Asia Research Program fellow.