President Trump will welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Mar-a-Lago this week in an effort to shore up their relationship amid strains in the U.S.-Japan alliance ahead of Trump’s potential summit with the leader of North Korea.
The double-whammy amounted to a gut punch for Abe and left some in Tokyo questioning his strategy of cozying up to the mercurial American president. Abe was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after the election, and the two have met and spoken 20 times — more interactions than Trump has had with any other world leader. It is Abe’s second visit to Mar-a-Lago, after meetings and a round of golf last year.
Now, the question is whether Abe’s influence will endure in the face of the whirlwind geopolitical maneuvering of East Asian leaders, including South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a liberal who has led the push for more diplomatic engagement with the Kim regime, to the consternation of Tokyo. Moon and Kim are scheduled to meet later this month, and Kim recently visited President Xi Jinping in Beijing.
Takao Toshikawa, a veteran political journalist in Tokyo, said that the conservative Abe’s immediate task was to use his face time with Trump to ameliorate fears of “Japan passing” — the notion that the United States is prepared to downgrade its bedrock security ally in favor of other priorities. Toshikawa employed the phrase “Japan dissing” to describe Trump’s recent moves.
“The summit next week will be the most important of his tenure,” he said, noting that it was difficult for Abe to prepare for the meeting because Trump is so unpredictable.
“If Trump makes rapid progress in his talks with Kim, that could put Abe in a very disadvantageous position. Abe is afraid of that,” Toshikawa said. “So Abe should tell Trump that Japan and the U.S. need to act as one and urge Trump to understand Japan’s position on North Korean issues, as well as economic issues.”
Trump aides played down suggestions of a rift. The two leaders will open with a bilateral meeting, followed by several working sessions that include their national security teams. Topics include trade, energy and China, as well as North Korea. Among those expected on the U.S. side are national security adviser John Bolton, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and Vice President Pence.
The president and first lady Melania Trump will hold dinners both nights for the Japanese delegation, U.S. officials said.
“I don’t think it’s accurate to describe the need for ‘repair work,’ ” a senior Trump administration official told reporters Friday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to preview the meetings. “We manage frictions as they come. Overall, the relationship has never been better.”
That appears to be an open question.
On North Korea, Abe is determined to set guardrails for Trump in his talks with Kim. In visits to Washington over the past several weeks, Japanese government officials have emphasized that the United States must maintain tough economic sanctions on the North and not reward Pyongyang merely for its willingness to talk.
Japanese officials are intent on ensuring that Trump pushes to reduce the threat posed by the North’s short- and medium-range missiles, in addition to its nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles. And Abe also will emphasize human rights, including the unresolved abductions of at least 13 Japanese by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.
Trump has denounced North Korea’s treatment of Otto Warmbier, an American college student who was detained by the Kim regime for 17 months and died shortly after his release in a coma last year. Three other Americans remain in captivity.
“We are not out of the loop — we are closing the loop,” insisted a senior official close to Abe who was not authorized to speak on the record.
Former State Department officials who have negotiated with North Korea under previous administrations warned that Pyongyang will present its own demands. Those could include the lifting of economic sanctions, a formal peace treaty, pledges by the United States to ensure the Kim regime’s survival and a reduction of the U.S. military presence on the peninsula. It is also unclear how the United States would be able to verify North Korea’s compliance with any deal to freeze or dismantle its weapons program.
Michael Green, who served as senior Asia director at the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration, said Japanese officials told him Abe will “warn about the rhetorical traps Kim will set that would be extremely damaging to Japan. One would be accepting Kim Jong Un’s promise to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula. That does not mean anything.”
Abe has pursued a strategy that his best bet on influencing Trump is through constant reinforcement. Abe was at Mar-a-Lago in February 2017 when North Korea launched its first missile test of the Trump administration, and Trump joined him that evening for a joint statement denouncing the action.
Some Japanese officials close to Abe are relieved that Bolton, a North Korea hawk, has replaced H.R. McMaster, expecting him to reinforce Abe’s views. Bolton has already met with Japanese and South Korean officials.
On trade, Japanese analysts have suggested Trump hopes to use the tariffs as leverage to force Tokyo to open talks on a bilateral free-trade agreement — something the Abe administration has strenuously opposed.
“Trump is just trying to stir things up,” said Masahiko Hosokawa, a former Trade Ministry official who now teaches at Chubu University.
There was a small sign of potential good news for Abe last week when Trump instructed aides to examine the possibility of the United States reentering the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an 11-nation trade deal from which Trump withdrew potential U.S. membership in his first week in office.
“Abe may look better coming into the summit next week,” said Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It certainly looks like the Japan team may be able to claim a better trade story.”
Trump administration officials said another round of golf is not on the formal schedule this week, but they did not explicitly rule it out, and some Japanese appear hopeful that the two leaders will hit the links.
Green, the former Bush administration official, said one Japanese diplomat told him: “Eighteen holes of golf offer 18 opportunities to reinforce key points on North Korea.”
Fifield reported from Tokyo.