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International relations

Sparks fly at Tokyo summit as Trump vents over China and beef

President eager for trade win as clock ticks toward elections

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on May 27. (Photo by Masayuki Terazawa)

TOKYO -- Behind the camaraderie, U.S. President Donald Trump's summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe this week revealed his frustration with the slow progress on a China trade deal and his fixation on the farm vote -- something Abe understands as both leaders look ahead to elections.

Trump left Japan on Tuesday night after four days filled with golf, sumo wrestling and an audience with Emperor Naruhito, having called the trip a "truly amazing and unforgettable visit."

But he spent much of Monday's summit with Abe airing grievances over trade talks with China. During the meeting at the Akasaka Palace, which ran significantly past the planned one hour, he repeatedly complained that Beijing refused to heed American demands and that he was unhappy with how things were playing out. Abe said that at least Japan-U.S. relations were going well.

The U.S. trade war with China presents Trump with his biggest foreign policy challenge, and he struck a determined tone at a joint news conference here with Abe.

"I believe that we will have a very good deal with China sometime into the future, because I don't believe that China can continue to pay these, really, hundreds of billions of dollars in tariffs," Trump told reporters.

A perceived failure on China could deal a blow to his reelection chances in November 2020.

Trump's complaints about Beijing appeared to be a veiled push for a swift agreement with Japan. He tweeted Sunday that a deal with Japan could wait until after its upper house election in July, and he told reporters before Monday's summit that an announcement on trade would come "probably in August."

"Trump wants to have something to show as quickly as possible," said a source present at the latest summit. "He probably thought, 'It has to be after the upper house election, so August then.'" The source only expects a broad agreement at the time rather than a finalized trade deal.

At the working lunch that followed the summit, Trump called for lower tariffs -- not on automobiles, as the Japanese side had expected, but on beef and other agricultural products.

The president insisted at the lunch that "only the U.S." faces unfairly high tariffs on farm goods in an apparent show of frustration with the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which lowered duties for members including Canada and Australia.

Trump has sought to portray himself as an ally of American farmers, recently ordering a $16 billion package of aid to offset the impact of the trade war with China. The first nominating contest to choose his Democratic challenger in the 2020 presidential election will take place in the major agricultural state of Iowa.

But with Japan's upper house election approaching in July, Abe also cannot back down. "Let's think of a win-win proposal that would pass the Japanese parliament," he said while showing a willingness to work with Trump.

Much remains unclear about the supposed announcement in August. When the two leaders met in late April, Trump had expressed hope of a May agreement.

"I haven't set any deadlines for myself," Abe told officials of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party on Monday night after meeting with Trump. He reaffirmed that he would not concede more than under the TPP and that any deal would have to pass the parliament.

"I want to reassure you that everything is going well," he said.

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