TOKYO -- The U.S. and Japanese leaders seek to showcase a solid bilateral alliance in a summit here Monday as they confront increasing threats from a North Korea eager to drive a wedge between the two countries.
Pyongyang will top the agenda in the talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "Starting with the North Korean situation, we hope to take time to thoroughly discuss various international issues," Abe told reporters after the president arrived in Japan on Sunday.
In a press conference held after being re-elected prime minister Wednesday, Abe also said, "We will analyze the latest North Korean situation, discuss our response in detail and affirm our even stronger cooperation."
"It is important for President Trump to stress during the meeting that the U.S. is 100% with Japan," said a Japanese government official.
The leaders will confirm their plan to maximize international pressure to force Pyongyang into abandoning its nuclear and missile development. By showing unity backed by personal trust, Abe and Trump hope to bolster deterrence against North Korea. They will also affirm cooperation in dealing with the past abductions of Japanese nationals by North Korea.
Trump on Sunday told reporters on board Air Force One that he will soon decide whether to redesignate North Korea as a terrorism sponsor state to further isolate the country. The prime minister is expected to express his support for the move.
Abe also backs the U.S. position of not ruling out military action against North Korea. This is to not play into the hands of Pyongyang, which is trying to undermine unity among Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, assuming that South Korea and Japan are loath to see military conflict on the Korean Peninsula.
"Japan is a treasured partner and crucial ally of the United States and today we thank them for welcoming us and for decades of wonderful friendship between our two nations," Trump said in a Sunday speech at Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo. If at the summit Trump again assures Tokyo that the U.S. is fully behind Japan, that would send a powerful message to North Korea.
The two leaders could discuss specific military options as well. "It is natural for the leaders to discuss [military options] to prepare for an emergency," said a source at Japan's Defense Ministry.
Abe will explain that Japan is doing its part by expanding the role of the Self-Defense Forces and planning installation of a land-based Aegis missile defense system.
Abe hopes to also discuss China's maritime ambition. When he visited the U.S. in February, Abe went to great lengths to craft a joint statement reaffirming the U.S. commitment to defend Okinawa Prefecture's Senkaku islands, which are claimed by China.
This time, Abe will explain his vision of keeping the seas from the Pacific to Indian oceans free and open through the rule of law. He hopes to share with the U.S. the idea of promoting cooperation within the region through infrastructure development and maritime security. The idea is not to exclude China outright but to urge constructive participation as a responsible world power.
US trade representative brings up free trade agreement
Trade will also be a crucial topic. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono told reporters Sunday that U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer touched on a free trade agreement with Japan during a meeting earlier that day.
"We will discuss our best possible options through bilateral economic dialogue," Kono said. The Japanese side believes the foreign minister succeeded in avoiding delving deeper into the issue.
According to the U.S. side, commerce came up during the leaders' golf outing in Kawagoe on Sunday as well. Trump could step up pressure on Japan to reduce its trade surplus with the U.S.
Tokyo's strategy is to cajole Washington into easing its stance by touting its cooperation in joint infrastructure and energy exports. But Trump could cite specific issues, such as expansion of U.S. automobile exports. Japan is waiting to see if Trump will bring up a free trade agreement, a route Tokyo hopes to avoid.
When Trump and Abe met in Hamburg, Germany, in July, the president also mentioned the U.S. trade deficit with Japan, asking Tokyo to buy more American cars, defense equipment and liquefied natural gas.
But currently Japan is consumed with renegotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership while the U.S. is pushing to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement and its free trade pact with South Korea. Japan plans to buy time by insisting on continued negotiations if Trump demands the start of bilateral trade talks.
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