TOKYO — When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called President-elect Donald Trump shortly after his victory, he mentioned that he would be passing through New York this week on his way to the APEC summit and suggested a meeting. “That would be awesome,” Trump immediately responded, according to people briefed on the conversation.
It’s happening. Abe will see Trump on Thursday in New York, making him one of the first world leaders to meet with the next American president.
There is much to discuss — not least the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Abe just pushed through his parliament and that Trump has vowed to scrap, and the U.S. military bases in Japan that Trump wants more money for.
“I’d like to frankly exchange views on a variety of issues and to express my views on matters like free trade . . . the economy, foreign policy and security in general,” Abe told a parliamentary panel Monday in Tokyo. But Abe, who could be in power through 2020, also said he would use this meeting to “build a trusting relationship.”
Indeed, don’t expect them to get into the nitty-gritty, analysts say.
“The point of this meeting is to develop trust and chemistry on a personal level, to reassure people in both countries that everything is fine,” said Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who worked in the George W. Bush administration and has strong ties to Abe’s team.
Rather than talking substance about trade deals or the countries’ 70-year-old security alliance, Abe should concentrate on building a personal relationship with Trump, Green said.
They already have plenty in common.
For one, Trump sets a tone that Abe, a strong nationalist in his own right, will be comfortable with, Green said. Trump promised to “make America great again,” while Abe is set on turning Japan back into a “beautiful country.” For another, they both have a bromance going on with Vladimir Putin, the unequivocally nationalist Russian leader whom Trump has praised and whom Abe will welcome to Japan next month.
There are jitters in both Japan and South Korea over what Trump might do as president. On the campaign trail, he repeatedly said that Japan and South Korea were not paying enough for their defense and that he would make them pay more — perhaps even all — of the costs of hosting American military bases.
Since his victory, the Japanese government has been taking a wait-and-see approach. “Trump said various things during his campaign, but I will not presuppose what he will do as president,” Tomomi Inada, Japan’s defense minister, said Friday. However, she added that Japan is already paying its fair share toward base costs.
Analysts here are less guarded, hoping that Trump will temper his position once he appoints staff and starts receiving policy briefings.
“We don’t really know whether Trump means what he said during the campaign,” said Akira Sato, a ruling-party lawmaker who served as vice minister of defense until last year. “He’s a businessman, so it’s possible that he’d not be so knowledgeable about security issues.”
Japan allocated $1.9 billion in its last budget for the American bases, which house almost 50,000 U.S. personnel, although its total contribution, including other costs like civilian salaries, is more than double that.
South Korea, which has about 28,500 American troops, pays almost $900 million, or 40 percent of the total cost, for the bases it hosts.
The installations serve as forward operating bases for the U.S. military in the Asia-Pacific region, helping to contain a nuclear-armed North Korea and, increasingly, a more muscular China.
Analysts say that it’s possible that the U.S. government under Trump will charge its allies more for the cost of the military bases, but almost all agree that Trump is unlikely to order them closed.
“Japan shouldn’t take his remarks at face value,” said Masashi Nishihara, president of the Research Institute of Peace and Security in Tokyo, adding that Trump said all sorts of “wild things” on the campaign trail.
“Having American forces in Japan is not only good for Japan but also for the U.S., which needs to keep an eye on North Korea, China and the Indian Ocean,” Nishihara said.
Abe, who made a similar point in parliament Monday, will be able to set this explanation process in motion during Thursday’s meeting, Nishihara said.
But a more immediate issue to tackle will be Russia.
Trump has made his admiration for Putin clear, saying in an NBC forum in September that he “has been a leader far more than our president has been,” and Abe has also been pursuing closer ties with the Russian president.
Putin will travel to Japan in mid-December, visiting a hot-spring resort with Abe in his home prefecture, then holding a day of meetings in Tokyo. Putin is said to be particularly eager to see Japanese companies invest in Russia’s Far East and has requested meetings with big-business representatives.
“Abe will want to know how far and how fast Trump wants to move to reset the relationship with Putin, so that he can be as well-positioned as possible during Putin’s coming visit,” said Sheila Smith, a Japan expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This will be an entirely different scenario for Tokyo. While the government here is hoping that Trump was just speaking off the cuff about reviewing the terms of their security alliance, Abe will probably be hoping that the incoming president was speaking the truth when it comes to relations with Russia.
Japan has been somewhat reluctantly going along with the international community when it comes to punishing Russia for its annexation of Crimea and actions in Ukraine.
But at the same time, Abe has been actively been pursuing closer ties with Putin and is hoping to forge a deal next month that would resolve a territorial dispute going back to World War II over a group of four islands known to Russia as the Kurils and Japan as the Northern Territories.
Abe is promoting a deal in which they would have two islands each, enabling Japan and Russia to sign a peace treaty to officially end the war, local media have reported.
Sato, the former vice defense minister, said that, overall, Japan probably doesn’t need to worry as much as it has been about what a President Trump will do: “He seems like a realist and has been successful in the business world, so he will most likely make good judgments.”
Yuki Oda contributed to this report.