With early Trump meeting, Abe seeks assurance of strong ties
TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will make a case for the importance of the Japan-U.S. security alliance when he meets with American President-elect Donald Trump as hoped for next week, aiming to cement personal and national ties after sidelining the victor during campaign season.
On Thursday morning here, just 15 hours after the Republican Party candidate declared victory, Abe called Trump to express his confidence that the U.S. would indeed grow greater under the president-elect's leadership. He also requested a face-to-face meeting as early as possible. Trump in turn praised Abe's governance as "great" and "amazing," inviting the Japanese leader to share a meal.
Trump, a business magnate, "seems to care a good deal about Japan's economic policy," Abe told ruling-party leadership after the call. Thus assured, the prime minister looks to offer Japan's cooperation on the infrastructure-investment push Trump has pledged when the two meet as expected next Thursday, taking an economic tack in shoring up bilateral ties.
Abe was the fourth national leader to speak with Trump after his win, falling behind only leaders in Israel, Mexico and Egypt, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Japan had put forth multiple possible call times even before Trump declared victory, and was rewarded with a fairly early slot, a government source said.
Officials such as Kenichiro Sasae, Japan's ambassador to the U.S., have made overtures to figures including Trump's daughter Ivanka and Republican Senator Jeff Sessions since the campaign, sources say. Though the government was slower to build ties with the Trump camp than with the Democratic Party candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, diplomats began making up for lost time immediately after the result became clear, at Abe's instruction.
The prime minister had set a meeting with Clinton in New York on Nov. 17, ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit in Peru, in the event of her victory. No such arrangement had been made with the Trump camp. But Abe was assured during Thursday's call that the two sides will try to coordinate a meeting on that date.
On your own
It is out of the ordinary for Japan's prime minister to meet with a U.S. president-elect before he or she is sworn in, a foreign ministry official said. But Trump is no ordinary politician. He has accused American allies such as Japan, Germany and South Korea of not paying their fair share of defense costs, demanding during the campaign that Tokyo shoulder the full burden of hosting U.S. troops and threatening to withdraw if that condition is not met. Trump also suggested at one point that Japan bolster its defense capability by acquiring a nuclear arsenal.
"There is nothing for Japan to do but explain its own views on the matter," a Ministry of Defense official said. Japan already bears a heftier share of the cost of a U.S. troop presence than other American allies. A decision by Trump to reassess U.S. military involvement in this country could have wide-ranging impacts, including on the hotly contested relocation of a U.S. Marine Corps base in Okinawa.
But few are currently taking Trump's defense proposals at face value. Talk of withdrawing U.S. troops or arming Japan with nuclear weapons "is campaign rhetoric," according to a defense ministry source. Trump "will most likely have security experts to support him" after taking office, the source said.
The president-elect's position on broader Asia-Pacific security is mostly unknown -- a situation some in Tokyo fear could invite Chinese provocation in areas such as the East and South China seas. The risk that a power vacuum could develop in the region is particularly high during the presidential transition period through next summer or so.
Chinese government ships began a series of incursions into territorial waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands -- which China claims as the Diaoyu -- in December 2008, just after U.S. President Barack Obama was elected. Beijing views the rise of Trump, who has called for the U.S. to back down as the world's policeman, as an excellent chance to further shift the regional balance of power in its favor.
The U.S.-Japan alliance has so far acted as a counterweight to China. If that relationship were to weaken, the duo's "ability to hold China in check could wither as well," according to a foreign ministry official.
A Trump presidency also holds implications for Japan's uneasy relationships with powers such as Russia and North Korea. The president-elect has described U.S.-Russian ties as the chilliest since the Cold War, due to conflict over Syria's civil war and the situation in Ukraine. Trump has also said that he may meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin before taking office, signaling a willingness to work toward better relations.
This could help smooth negotiations between Tokyo and Moscow over disputed islands north of Japan. The U.S. has sanctioned Russia for its involvement in Ukraine, and has therefore been leery of closer ties between the neighbors until now. On the other hand, realizing closer Washington-Moscow ties could sap momentum for territorial talks, leaving a longtime Japanese priority to gather dust.
Meanwhile, in the face of North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile development, Trump has pledged to use American economic leverage over China to force Beijing to rein in Pyongyang, with which it holds strong economic and political ties. This is in line with Japan's position that China should play a key role in bringing the North's provocations under control.
But Trump has also said he sees no problem in speaking with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. While Tokyo also mixes pressure and dialogue in its approach to Pyongyang, the government holds that official talks are impossible in the current climate, given the North's repeated nuclear and missile tests since the beginning of the year.
Pyongyang prioritizes talks with Washington over those with Tokyo. A warmer relationship with the U.S. could thus lead the North to put negotiations with Japan on the back burner, halting progress on efforts to resolve the long-outstanding cases of Japanese abducted by North Korean agents decades ago, a foreign ministry official said.