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U.S. President Donald Trump, right, meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the U.N. General Assembly in New York.   © Reuters
International relations

Japan, US set stage for 'no-risk' summit

Officials on both sides working to ensure Trump visit is free of surprises

TOKYO -- Japanese and American diplomats have one overarching mission -- no meeting between the leaders of their countries can be allowed to go awry.

This is especially true of meetings between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Donald Trump.

Diplomats in Tokyo and Washington work hard to carefully plan, script and prepare any meeting between the two leaders so that neither of them makes unexpected remarks that cause damage to the alliance. Both sides leave nothing to chance.

As long as they stick to the script, there is little possibility of their meeting ending on a bitter note due to serious disagreements on key issues.

Despite being close allies, Japan and the U.S. always have issues on which they don't see eye to eye.

To prevent such disagreements from featuring prominently in bilateral summits, the two countries leave discussions on contentious issues to unofficial talks or meetings of other senior officials.

The biggest bone of contention between the two countries at the moment is Japan's massive trade surplus with the U.S.

During his presidential campaign last year, Trump criticized Japan over this issue.

After he was elected president, Tokyo acted quickly to ensure there would be no long or heated discussions on the topic between the two leaders.

In a diplomatic ploy that has so far proved to be a smart move, Japan proposed a new framework for talks over bilateral issues dubbed "economic dialogue" during the first meeting between Abe and Trump in February.

Tokyo and Washington agreed that the talks under this framework should be led by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Vice President Mike Pence, in line with Japan's proposal.

This gambit took advantage of the fact that Pence served as the governor of Indiana, where three Japanese carmakers operate manufacturing plants, employing hundreds of workers and contributing to the local economy.

Aso, as deputy prime minister, is heading the mission to ensure that the U.S. delegation to the new bilateral talks on economic issues is be led by Pence, Aso's U.S. counterpart, who is known to be sympathetic toward Japan.

If Aso had taken on the task as finance minister, his other portfolio, the U.S. side would have been led by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.

If Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko had been chosen for the post, the U.S. government would have been represented by either Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross or Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.

That could have led to stormy talks dominated by the U.S. trade deficit with Japan.

Since Trump was inaugurated, the two leaders have held four meetings and 16 phone conversations.

Although he has mentioned the issue in meetings with Abe, Trump has not tried to put strong pressure on the prime minister to take actions to cut Japan's trade surplus with the U.S., mainly because the issue is supposed to be discussed under the framework of "economic dialogue."

The latest round of economic dialogue was held in Washington two weeks before the Abe-Trump summit in Tokyo.

After the meeting, Japanese officials said Pence had shown a "strong interest" in negotiating a free trade agreement with Japan.

Japanese diplomats said they revealed that a bilateral FTA had been discussed so the topic would not come up during the Abe-Trump summit.

It was an attempt to ease diplomatic pressure from the politically powerful American farm lobby, which is demanding the scrapping of Japan's high tariffs on beef and other agricultural imports from the U.S.

If the two leaders have any heated exchanges during Trump's visit to Japan, they will happen while the two leaders play golf on Sunday, not during their official summit on Monday.

Few people other than their interpreters will be present as they talk during their golf outing. Even if they get embroiled in a heated argument on the golf course, it would probably not be revealed to the public.

Japanese diplomats believe the arrangement will allow Trump to divulge what he really thinks while playing golf with Abe instead of during the official meeting with the Japanese prime minister.

Any sign of discord between Tokyo and Washington would send the wrong message to North Korea and China, two countries the U.S. views as potential threats to its security.

Security worries

The efforts to eliminate the risk of a botched summit are also driven by the regional security landscape, currently marked by growing tension over North Korea's nuclear and missile programs.

This would be an impossible mission, however, if not for the mutual trust between the two leaders.

In contrast, the relationship between former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and former U.S. President Barack Obama got so soured over the issue of the planned relocation of the U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Okinawa Prefecture that it was difficult to hold a friendly summit between them.

It later came to light that Obama had harshly criticized Hatoyama during their meetings, although administration officials did not reveal any such episode at that time.

Politics is a fickle creature. Tokyo should not delude itself into thinking that the current good relationship between Abe and Trump reduces the need for constant efforts to keep the bilateral alliance on a solid footing.

Do you live in Asia? How do you feel about Trump visiting the region?

  • Do you believe Trump can make Asia a more secure place?
  • Will the US or China be the strongest political force in East Asia in 2030?
  • Is the US an indispensable economic partner or should Asia become more self-sufficient?

Email us your answers to: nar01@nex.nikkei.co.jp

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