President Trump pledged Friday that his administration remains committed to maintaining the United States’ long-standing security alliance with Japan, aiming to calm jitters in Tokyo over his inflammatory rhetoric on the campaign trail.
In a news conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House, Trump called the alliance the “cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific region,” and he vowed to make ties between the two countries “even closer.”
Trump’s remarks on the alliance, which hewed closely to statements of previous U.S. presidents, would not have been remarkable were it not for the sharp criticism he aimed at Japan during the 2016 presidential campaign. He denounced a sizable U.S. trade deficit to Japan and suggested Japan and South Korea were not paying their share to support American troops based in the region.
But the summit, aggressively pursued by the Japanese, aimed to erase doubts, even as the two sides remain at odds over how to move forward on trade and economic ties.
Trump sought to present the two countries in close harmony over shared challenges on North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and China’s aggression in the South China Sea — “both of which I consider a very, very high priority,” he said.
On several occasions, Trump gave Abe extended handshakes — one in the Oval Office lasted 19 seconds — and patted him on the back, displaying a personal warmth that has begun to develop between the two men since Abe became the first foreign leader to visit Trump after his election victory in November. “
“Strong hands,” Trump remarked in the Oval Office, mimicking a golf swing. The two were scheduled to play a round this weekend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s winter retreat in Palm Beach, Fla.
“I grabbed him and hugged him because that’s the way we feel,” Trump said at the news conference, describing his greeting of Abe outside the West Wing. “We have a very, very good bond, very, very good chemistry.”
“I’ll let you know if it changes,” Trump added, drawing laughs in the East Room before adding: “But I don’t think it will.”
[Trump targeted Japan during the campaign]
Abe, who has made a concerted effort to court Trump since his election, praised the president’s outsider candidacy and “uphill struggle and fight” to win the White House.
The Japanese leader also pledged that his country would play a “greater role” in defense and security operations, although he was vague on what that might entail. Japan’s Self-Defense Forces are prohibited from combat missions abroad under the constitution imposed on the country by the United States after World War II.
“Of course, there are disagreements,” Abe said, “but we should not close down the . . . dialogue just by pointing to the differences and ignoring the common interests and common goals.”
The summit was being watched closely by U.S. allies and partners across the globe for signs over how Trump would deal with a powerful ally after the unpredictable bluster of his campaign and early weeks of his presidency. Trump has clashed with the leaders of Mexico and Australia, and his move to cancel U.S. participation in a 12-nation Pacific Rim trade pact that includes Japan raised alarms over how he would receive Abe.
After finishing formal talks, Trump and Abe left the White House together through the South Lawn entrance and boarded Marine One, followed by Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump. Another Trump adviser, Stephen K. Bannon, also joined them on the presidential helicopter, which whisked them past the Washington Monument on a flight path to Joint Base Andrews in Camp Springs, Md., where Air Force One was waiting.
There, the two leaders were met by their wives, first lady Melania Trump and Akie Abe, for the trip to Mar-a-Lago. White House officials said Trump plans to use the retreat for diplomatic bonding sessions in the way other presidents have used Camp David.
During the news conference, Trump was asked about his first phone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which had come Thursday evening. The White House said Trump reaffirmed his administration would honor Beijing’s “One China” policy that stipulates Taiwan is officially part of China despite the island having a separate government.
Trump angered Beijing by receiving a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president after his election and publicly questioning the “One China” policy, suggesting his administration might renounce it unless China offered better trade deals to the United States.
On Friday, Trump characterized the call with Xi as “very, very warm.”
“I think we are on the process of getting along very well,” he said.
For his part, Abe largely avoided talking in specifics about Trump’s decision to break with his predecessor and withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation Pacific Rim free-trade deal that Trump opposed during the campaign.
But he did promise that Japan would support Trump’s economic “growth strategy.”
“There will be even more new jobs born in the U.S.,” Abe said.
Trump promised that the United States would “be an even bigger player than it is right now by a lot when it comes to trade.”
In a joint statement, the two nations said Trump accepted Abe’s invitation to visit Japan later this year.
And, in another gesture of goodwill, Abe made sure to praise Trump’s golf game.
“My scores in golf are not up to the level of Donald at all,” Abe said in Japanese, according to a translator.
It was not clear, however, whether Trump understood him; the president failed to attach the earpiece of his translation device until after Abe’s opening statement.