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‘Stopping the bad stuff’: Japan’s Abe visits White House in latest bid to soothe Trump’s ego — and avoid his ire

President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a joint news conference in the Rose Garden on June 7, 2018.
President Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a joint news conference in the Rose Garden on June 7, 2018. (Shawn Thew/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives in Washington on Friday for a two-day summit with President Trump that includes meetings at the White House, a private birthday dinner for the first lady and 18 holes at Trump National Golf Club in Sterling.

Such ample face time has been viewed in Tokyo as a symbol of success in Abe’s diligent 2 1/2-year effort to fan the mercurial president’s ego. It also has left other foreign capitals, including Seoul, with a touch of envy in the contest to influence a foreign policy that often appears to be driven by Trump’s whims.

But beyond the pleasantries lies a more difficult reality for Abe and a test of his resilience at a time when Trump is demanding that Japan engage in negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement that Tokyo has long resisted, and is ratcheting up threats to impose tariffs on Japanese automobiles.

Such an action “could be a turning point” in the relationship, one Japanese official said this week, before quickly adding that he does not believe it will happen.

That mounting tensions on trade threaten to overshadow the uncertainty for Japan over the fate of the Trump administration’s stalled nuclear negotiations with North Korea illustrates the complex and challenging path forward for Abe even as he reaffirms his charm offensive. His White House visit will mark the 40th time he has spoken or met with Trump since the president won office.

“There’s a certain amount of domestic dismay and criticism of Abe for what is perceived in many quarters in Japan as shameless pandering to Donald Trump,” said Daniel Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific in the Obama administration. “I’ve certainly heard that from [legislative] Diet members in Abe’s own party. But my suspicion is that Abe feels justified based on the principle of, ‘whatever it takes’ — that Japan does not have the luxury of being cast adrift in this uncongenial geopolitical climate.”

Japanese officials emphasized that Abe’s visit is part of a multination tour that includes stops in France, Italy, Slovakia, Belgium and Canada — an itinerary aimed at shoring up the agenda for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June. Trump, who will make a three-day state visit to Tokyo to meet the new Japanese emperor in late May, is tentatively scheduled to attend the G-20, as well.

Yet analysts said that Abe also felt pressure to hastily secure an audience with Trump after the collapse of Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in February. South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who has staked his presidency on diplomatic outreach to the North, visited two weeks ago to urge the White House to consider moving off a hard line over sanctions relief in a bid to restart talks.

But Abe will attempt to reinforce the position of Trump administration hard-liners, such as national security adviser John Bolton, that the president should hold firm on sanctions until Pyongyang fully commits to denuclearize, Japanese officials said.

“Abe has talked to Trump about North Korea before every summit, and the Japanese side says they have the same discussion every time,” said Michael Green, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who served on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush Administration.

“Trump’s view is that he knows how to negotiate and doesn’t need Abe’s advice. I’m told Trump told Abe that it’s bad to prepare too much because on big deals you have to go with your gut,” Green added. But Abe’s goal “is at least stopping the bad stuff.”

White House officials offered a three-minute summary of the agenda for the summit in a telephone briefing for reporters Thursday but declined to answer questions.

Unlike the leaders of European allies, such as Germany and Britain, and U.S. neighbors Canada and Mexico, which have occasionally bucked Trump and paid a price on Twitter, Abe has remained loyal and gone largely unscathed from personal attacks.

But Trump on occasion has embarrassed Abe, such as when he announced at a Rose Garden news conference that the Japanese leader had written a five-page letter nominating him for a Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts on North Korea. Abe did not deny it and was mocked by some conservatives in Tokyo.

A Japanese official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss private views in Tokyo, said Abe has not paid a significant political price for his efforts to woo Trump. Tokyo has been pleased with the administration’s tougher stance with Beijing on economic issues, and Abe believes Trump is listening on North Korea.

Yet the Japanese official acknowledged that Trump, embroiled in the fallout of the special counsel probe into Russian election interference, “faces a lot of challenges to get reelected. The president will do anything to get elected, so we have to be realistic.”

It is on trade where the Japanese are most circumspect. Burned once by Trump, who included Japan in a round of steel and aluminum tariffs early in his administration, the Japanese have engaged in a delicate dance of trying to demonstrate a willingness to negotiate while seeking to avoid the most challenging sticking points.

Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s economy minister, arrived in Washington on Thursday to resume trade talks with U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer. Their second meeting this month, the discussions are aimed at accelerating progress toward a limited deal involving agriculture and autos, with additional provisions on digital trade deferred to subsequent bargaining.

Trump wants to reduce the $67.6 billion annual merchandise trade deficit with Japan by getting Japanese automakers to produce more vehicles in the United States and by prying open Japan’s agricultural markets.

Abe insists he won’t give the U.S. any greater agricultural concessions than Japan agreed to in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade accord that was awaiting ratification before Trump ended U.S. participation during his first week in office.

The talks are shadowed by Trump’s threat to impose tariffs on imported vehicles on national security grounds, which would hit Japan and Germany especially hard. The president agreed last fall to hold off on tariffs while the talks continue.

Abe, whose Liberal Democratic Party faces challenging upper house elections in Japan’s parliament this summer, is eager to avoid a blowup with Trump. Yet he appears to have little leverage to force concessions from the United States on trade that could help him win ratification in Tokyo for any potential deal.

“My sense is that the Japanese are hanging on by their fingernails,” said a congressional aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

The aide, who recently visited Tokyo, said one senior adviser to Abe told him of Trump: “If this goes on for another six years, we can’t survive.”

David J. Lynch contributed to this report.