Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he wants to “build trust” with US President-elect Donald Trump when the two meet in New York Thursday, as he seeks to safeguard the long-standing alliance between the two countries.
“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.”
Like other Asian leaders, Abe is keen to discover how much of Trump’s campaign-trail rhetoric will become policy, in particular whether Trump will follow through on a suggestion he might 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.
Does Trump mean what he said?
It’s not hard to see why Prime Minister Abe wants to get first word with Trump.
The Japanese government was concerned by remarks made by Trump during his campaign about relations between the two countries. In particular, officials were rattled by Trump’s suggestions that Japan, which until last year had a pacifist constitution, should obtain nuclear weapons to protect itself from North Korea.
“Japan is better if it protects itself against this maniac of North Korea,” Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper in March.
At the time, Abe said that “whoever will become the next president of the United States, the Japan-US alliance is the cornerstone of Japan’s diplomacy.”
A special adviser sent in advance by Abe to meet with members of Trump’s transition team said he was told 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.
The President-elect and his team have not followed what is considered normal protocol in Washington D.C.
His transition team has yet to contact the Pentagon, State Department or other federal agencies.
It is also unclear in what order he has spoken with world leaders. A list issued Wednesday by his transition team details who he and Vice President-elect Mike Pence have spoken to but didn’t give further details.
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 not been preparing for Trump victory, and when he visited the US in September he only met Hillary Clinton.
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.
“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.