WASHINGTON -- Tokyo aims to make talks between Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence the foundation of functional ties to the Donald Trump administration.
But a hazy picture of how power flows in the White House makes it tough to tell who best to approach next on such issues as trade and national security.
Pence and Aso, who also serves as Japan's finance minister, met here Friday morning as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump prepared for their own set of talks. Forging a strong relationship with the vice president should be Aso's "top priority," Abe told his second-in-command before the two took off for the U.S. along with Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
Tokyo's dealings with Washington rest on a tag-team approach. While Abe works to win Trump's trust, the leaders' deputies are to handle the nuts and bolts of bilateral relations. The goal is to mitigate some of the risk inherent in dealing with the new president. "We have no idea what [Trump] could come out with," an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.
In a picture Abe posted to Facebook before takeoff on Thursday night, it was Aso, not the prime minister, who stood smiling front and center -- a move that sources close to Abe say aims to assure the Trump team that Aso is a key player on the Japanese end.
But just who in Washington matches Aso's closeness to his boss is a mystery governments around the world are struggling to solve. In addition to Pence, Tokyo has its eye on Jared Kushner, a senior White House adviser married to Trump's daughter Ivanka, as well as Steve Bannon, chief strategist and assistant to the president. Figures in Abe's office and the foreign ministry -- including Takaya Imai, the prime minister's executive secretary -- are pursuing contact with these key staffers behind the scenes.
Kushner has been proactive about keeping in touch with Tokyo since Trump's campaign, and helped set up a phone call between Trump and
Abe just after his father-in-law's victory in November.
Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, told his Japanese counterpart Shotaro Yachi during a recent phone call to contact him at any time if something were to come up. The pair are believed to be on a first-name basis.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis is also thought to be part of Trump's inner circle. The retired general has apparently convinced the president to defer to him on the matter of reinstating torture as a means to interrogate terror suspects, a strategy Mattis strongly opposes. Abe gave the secretary a warm welcome during the two days Mattis spent in Japan beginning Feb. 3.
Center of influence
Still, much about the division of power within the Trump administration remains the subject of conjecture. Key positions in the White House are still unfilled, and policy directors for critical departments are not yet in place. Signs that top personnel are grappling fiercely for influence further cloud the view of who shapes policy.
Bannon, for example, has been one of Trump's closest advisers since the campaign, for which he served as chief executive, and is expected to hold sway in a broad variety of fields going forward. Establishing ties with U.S. secretaries of state and defense has been Japan's top priority under previous administrations. But under Trump, Bannon's authority could dwarf that of such cabinet members.
In January, Trump placed Bannon on the National Security Council's principals committee, a group of the U.S.'s most essential national security personnel, while downgrading the roles of the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. American allies such as Japan worry this move could set off a power struggle between Bannon and Flynn.
Meanwhile, Peter Navarro, head of the newly created U.S. National Trade Council, could be on a collision course with Wilbur Ross, Trump's nominee for commerce secretary. Sources active in U.S.-Japan relations report difficulty finding a point man on trade matters, given uncertainty about who Tokyo will be negotiating with.
"Existing theory on how to establish relations does not apply," said one Japanese official involved in making contact with Washington, adding that the Trump administration is "a more difficult one than we've ever seen before."