TOKYO -- The first formal summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe highlighted a closeness between their two countries unseen anywhere else in the world. The meeting ended without trouble, with the two leaders reaffirming their commitment to a strong security alliance while avoiding notable frictions in trade and currency issues.
But this is just the starting point. Now Japan has to show to the world that it can build a constructive relationship with the new U.S. administration, which is leaning towards protectionism and interventionism, and prevent economic turmoil at home.
Japan got almost everything it wanted in maintaining the security alliance. U.S. forces in Japan, the Senkaku Islands, North Korea and situations in the East and South China seas are Tokyo's four most pressing concerns. The U.S. side reassured Japan that it will continue its support on these matters.
But shortly before the summit, Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping over the phone that he would honor the "one China" policy. The new administration has promoted a close bond with Japan while reducing tensions with China in a diplomatic balancing act.
With security issues settled, it is economic issues now causing the biggest concern in the bilateral relations. Before the meeting Trump had repeatedly attacked Japan on Twitter, criticizing Toyota Motor's plan to build a factory in Mexico and alleging that Japan uses its monetary policy to keep its currency weak. The Japanese government frantically prepared counterarguments before the summit.
Explaining that Japanese companies have built factories and created jobs in the U.S., government officials called for "win-win" cooperation between the two sides. They also arranged for Trump and Abe to avoid the currency issue and instead let finance ministers hold close consultations on the matter.
The real difficulties in the relationship will start from now. Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and Vice President Mike Pence will lead a new framework for economic dialogue between the countries. They will discuss finance and monetary policy, economic cooperation and bilateral trade. There is little doubt that the U.S. wants to score points here.
The two leaders have agreed on the importance of free and fair trade. But both have divergent visions of what "fair" trade constitutes.
Japan prioritizes high-level multilateral free trade frameworks with the Trans-Pacific Partnership in mind. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has withdrawn from the TPP and prefers tough negotiations to sign bilateral deals.
A new trade relationship between two of the world's largest economies will set a precedent for other countries and the new U.S. leadership. Japan needs to involve Europe, China and other Asian nations to stop Trump's America from going off the rails.