TOKYO -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stressed to President Donald Trump that handling relations with China presents "the greatest task of this century," taking last week's summit as an opportunity to shape the American agenda with Japan's priorities.
Trump "has only been in office a short while and has no political experience," Abe told the Diet's lower house budget committee Tuesday during a question-and-answer session. The best chance to present Japan's thoughts to the president is now, while Trump remains free of "preconceived ideas" about policy, the prime minister said.
"I spoke a good deal about my ideas on matters such as security" during Friday's meeting and the subsequent trip to Trump's Florida resort, Abe said.
A fair amount of time was devoted to China, the prime minister said. Though the specifics of those conversations were not revealed, Abe may have explained Japan's position on Beijing's expansion in the South China and East China seas, as well as on increased defense spending.
"The U.S. and Japan must further strengthen their military alliance so that China will move in the right direction" as that country continues to bolster its military capabilities, Abe said. But while Trump appears similarly inclined toward a stronger alliance, the president has shown signs of wanting to avoid too much damage to Sino-U.S. relations. How the two allies will square their China policies remains unclear.
On the nation's defense capabilities, the prime minister said he told Trump that Japan "must constantly consider what should be done" within the bounds set by the constitution as times change. Though Japan currently does not intend to obtain offensive strike capability aimed at deterring missile attacks, the country needs to look beyond rigid ideas about defense, Abe said, leaving the door open for such considerations down the road.
Abe also sought to address Trump's concerns about the auto trade, citing efforts by German automakers to court Japanese drivers as evidence against the president's claim that Tokyo creates "barriers" to foreign vehicles. The Japanese leader also noted that Toyota Motor includes more American parts in its vehicles than do the three leading U.S. automakers. The president in turn expressed appreciation for Japanese cars, Abe said.
Some expect the U.S., following its declared withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, to seek a bilateral free trade agreement with Japan. Abe said Tuesday that such a deal would be pursued "if it is in the national interest."
Seiji Maehara, a lawmaker with the leading-opposition Democratic Party, warned that for Abe to draw too close to a "president with a large number of detractors could expose both the prime minister and Japan to criticism." Maehara's statement was a nod to widespread opposition in the U.S. and abroad to Trump's policies such as a proposed entry ban on residents of countries the president purports to be terror-prone.
Abe insisted that "only the U.S." would help defend Japan and retaliate "in the event that North Korea were to launch a ballistic missile."
"There is no other choice than to cultivate a close relationship to Mr. Trump and display it to the world," Abe said. The prime minister said he offered Trump his cooperation, telling him that unless "the U.S. fulfills its role as leader of the free world, the world will fall into chaos."