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International Relations

Abe tries to keep Trump-Xi talks laser-focused on Pyongyang

11th-hour phone call reflects Japan's concern US might soften its stance

TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Thursday urged U.S. President Donald Trump to insist on greater Chinese cooperation in the face of threats from North Korea, which tested yet another missile the previous day.

Japan requested the call, which lasted 35 minutes, just ahead of Trump's scheduled summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida. Trump assured Abe that the North Korean issue would feature prominently on the agenda when he meets with Xi on Thursday and Friday, U.S. time, according to a Japanese government official.

Trump and Abe agreed that China has a key role to play in moderating Pyongyang's behavior, and that a Beijing clampdown needs to go beyond the current suspension of coal imports from the North.

"All options" for dealing with the threat remain on the table, the U.S. president said. 

In an earlier interview with the Financial Times, Trump had declared, "If China is not going to solve North Korea, we will."

But while Trump's White House is taking a harder line -- going so far as to hint at the possibility of military action -- China is reluctant to crank up the pressure.

"Under the current circumstances, relevant parties should exercise restraint and avoid heightening regional tensions," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters on Wednesday, commenting on the latest North Korean missile test.

Drawing a contrast with the U.S. position, she said, "To fundamentally resolve a deep-seated issue as such, we should adopt a holistic approach that can address both the symptoms and the root cause and accommodate all parties' legitimate concerns in a balanced way."

At the same time, Beijing is loath to see the North Korean issue further fortify the U.S.-Japan security alliance.

Diplomacy watchers say Xi may try to soften Trump up by dangling significant trade concessions. Abe's phone call appears to have been an attempt to convince Trump to hold his ground.

"Japan is closely watching what measures China might take in response to North Korean problems," Abe told reporters after the call, breaking with his typical protocol of not commenting on summits between other leaders.

From Japan's perspective, China's growing influence in East Asia is itself a reason to strengthen the bond with the U.S. In this context, Japanese diplomats are wary of Beijing trying to drive a wedge into the alliance.

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