For the most part, U.S. President Donald Trump’s four-day state visit to Japan was a cordial occasion, with both sides eager to highlight the continuing strength of their relationship. Still, there were signs of differences between Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on some current issues related to global and regional affairs and the economic relationship.
The state visit from May 25 to May 28 represented a continuation of Abe’s attempts to maintain a close, personal working relationship with Trump, who had previously alarmed many in Tokyo with his rhetoric during the 2016 presidential campaign accusing Japan of ripping off the U.S. economically and not paying its fair share for the American military presence. Now, however, Abe and Trump are in frequent phone contact and meet fairly regularly.
The Japanese government invited Trump and First Lady Melania to be the first state guests since Emperor Naruhito acceded to the throne on May 1, and put together an itinerary that included many opportunities for informal chats between Trump and Abe, including attending a sumo tournament, playing golf, and attending a charcoal grill restaurant on May 26. A state banquet was held at the Imperial Palace on May 27. Trump said he and the first lady were “profoundly honored” to be the first state guests of the Reiwa (Beautiful Harmony) Era.
There are, however, several areas in which the beautiful harmony between Tokyo and Washington may come under strain.
First, on North Korea policy, Abe’s stance on Pyongyang’s recent short-range missile tests was noticeably tougher than the position enunciated by Trump. Following the summit meeting and working lunch at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on May 27, Abe reaffirmed the Japanese government’s assessment that the May 9 launch involved a short-range ballistic missile. He said this was a matter of “great regret” and also represented a breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Trump, however, said he disagreed with his officials’ view on the launch and suggested that perhaps North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was seeking attention: “My people think it could have been a violation, as you know. I view it differently. I view it as a man — perhaps he wants to get attention, and perhaps not. Who knows? It doesn’t matter.”
Trump insisted that there had been no nuclear tests, “no ballistic missiles going out,” and no long-range missiles launched in recent times. Trump’s comments were also in contrast with that of his national security adviser, John Bolton, who told reporters in Tokyo just two days earlier: “The UN Security Council resolution prohibits the launch of any ballistic missiles and there is no doubt that North Korea has violated the resolution.”
Nonetheless Abe insisted that, on the whole, the United States and Japan were on the same page regarding North Korea policy. Trump said the essence of their shared approach was “peace through strength.” While he believed he would eventually strike a deal with Kim, Trump said he was “not in a rush.” Trump also offered supportive words on Abe’s push for a resolution on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s – a key diplomatic priority for Tokyo. Abe – who is himself seeking a meeting with Kim – praised Trump for taking a “new approach” and “cracking open the shell of mistrust” with the North Korean leader.
Second, while Abe and Trump kept trade-related friction to a minimum, it threatens to become a difficult issue in the months ahead. Trump apparently sought to avoid causing political problems for Abe ahead of Japanese elections this summer. Trump said much of the negotiation on a potential trade agreement would wait until after July – which assists Abe by avoiding public tensions when voters are preparing to cast their ballots in upper house (and possibly simultaneous lower house) elections. Japan is concerned about potential for the United States to impose tariffs on auto imports, which would harm an important component of the Japanese economy.
Both leaders said they were looking for a mutually beneficial deal. Abe repeatedly said that the negotiations were proceeding on the basis of the leaders’ joint statement from September of last year, which included a commitment that neither side would take measures against the spirit of the agreement while talks were continuing. That would seem to be an attempt by Abe to remind Trump not to impose auto tariffs on Japan, at least while the talks are continuing.
The joint statement of September gave an insight into the initial negotiating priorities of each side. The American side indicated it would seek to increase motor vehicle production and jobs in the United States. The Japanese side signaled that when it came to market access for agricultural, forestry and fishery products, “outcomes related to market access as reflected in Japan’s previous economic partnership agreements constitute the maximum level.”
At the post-summit press conference in Tokyo on May 27, Abe said the joint statement “must be the grand premise upon which we must create win-win result, which would be beneficial to both nations.” Trump, however, insisted that he would not be bound by terms outlined in previous agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP): “I’m not bound by anything that anybody else signs with respect to the United States.”
The day after the summit, Japanese Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi – who is negotiating with U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer – reaffirmed Japan’s position that it would not give the United States greater access on agriculture beyond TPP levels. It’s a sign that tensions could grow when negotiations intensify later in the year.
Despite North Korea and trade being a key focus the talks in Tokyo, Abe and Trump may be about to work much more closely on another pressing issue: Iran. The two leaders come at the issue with different starting positions: Trump walked away from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran last year, whereas Japan – which was not a party to the deal – was supportive of the agreement.
Abe – who is reportedly due to travel to Tehran for a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June – indicated he was prepared to help mediate between the United States and Iran. Abe said Japan wanted to “make contribution for the peace and stability of the region” and collaborate with Washington “so that this tension surrounding Iran should be mitigated and alleviated, and it shouldn’t culminate in the armed conflict.”
Trump appeared receptive to the idea, saying: “I know for a fact that the prime minister is very close with the leadership of Iran, and we’ll see what happens. That would be fine.” This looms as yet another area to watch in U.S.-Japan relations in the months ahead.