Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be the first world leader to meet with US President-elect Donald Trump on Thursday in New York, where he will attempt to safeguard the long-standing alliance between the two countries.
Prime Minister Abe, like other Asian leaders, is keen to find out to what extent Trump’s campaign trail rhetoric will become policy after Trump suggested he may withdraw US troops from the region.
A top aide to Abe, Katsuyuki Kawai said that he’d been told by members of Trump’s transition team that Trump’s previous remarks should not be taken literally.
“I am very honored to see the President elect ahead of other world leaders,” Abe told reporters before his departure.
“The Japan-US alliance is the axis of Japan’s diplomacy and security. The alliance becomes alive only when there is trust between us. I would like to build such a trust with Mr Trump.”
During the campaign, Trump stunned Japan and South Korea, another long-standing ally, with the suggestion the US military withdraw from their shores
Threats rhetoric or policy?
It’s not hard to see why Prime Minister Abe wants to get first word with Trump.
Trump’s suggestions that Japan, which until last year had a pacifist constitution, should obtain nuclear weapons to protect itself from North Korea caused particular consternation.
“Japan is better if it protects itself against this maniac of North Korea,” Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in March.
Concerned about the statement, Abe responded publicly at the time, saying, “whoever will become the next president of the United States, the Japan-US alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy.”
A special adviser that Abe sent to the US to meet with several members of Trump’s transition team before his visit said he was told that Japan shouldn’t take Trump’s campaign talk literally.
“All the people shared the same opinion — that we don’t need to be nervous about every single word and phrase said during Mr Trump’s campaign,” Katsuyuki Kawai told Japanese broadcaster NHK.
He held talks with Senator Tom Cotton, who has been rumored as a possible candidate for Defense Secretary and Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on Wednesday.
Nunes told reporters: “Mr Trump is very quick learner, I think he’s going to be very, very interested in all the issues dealing in Asia region.”
Starting from scratch?
Tomohiko Taniguchi, the Prime Minister’s special adviser said that Abe suggested the meeting during his congratulatory call to Trump on November 10.
Eager “to grab the chance” to meet the President elect, Abe decided to change his route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima, Peru to include a stopover in New York.
“He will have to work with Trump for the next four years,” Taniguchi told CNN’s Kristie Lu Stout. “This will be good opportunity for them to get to know each other well.
Reports suggest that Abe is starting from scratch in building his relationship with Trump.
The Nikkei Asian Review reported last week that Abe had been preparing for a Hillary Clinton victory, and when he visited the US in September he didn’t arrange a meeting with Trump, instead he met with the former secretary of state.
Taniguchi told CNN that the US commitment in Japan is about more than relations between the two nations, it’s about a commitment to the broader Indo-Pacific region.
“As long as the US commits itself to this region, what matters is location,” he said. “And Japan can offer the best location in the region.”
Paul Haenle, director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing, suggested that much of Trump’s tough talk on Asia talk might be bluster.
“Much of the world seems convinced that Trump’s election signals the ushering in of a period of American isolationism in which Washington will retreat from the world, including from Asia, and abandon its allies,” said Haenle, who served on the National Security Council under former President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama.
“Yet, the statements that have emerged over the last several days from Trump’s advisers indicate something very different — that Trump will implement a robust a US military presence in Asia, provide strong support for Taiwan, and bolster US alliances.”
Abe will also want to know how Trump plans to approach North Korea, which has ramped up its testing of missiles this year, including a nuclear warhead.
Trump has said he would be happy to host the country’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, for a visit.
“Japan is the closest US ally in Asia and he’ll want this to be reaffirmed,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan.
“I think Abe understands that Trump is a brittle person who takes offense easily and he will want to set a positive tone. He didn’t have good chemistry with Obama,” said Kingston.