World News

‘Is This Still a Buddy Movie?’ Trump and Japan’s Leader Will Soon Find Out

Posted April 13, 2018 11:58 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON — No foreign leader has spoken more often with President Donald Trump than Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. But when Trump welcomes Abe to his Palm Beach estate Tuesday, tensions over trade and North Korea will pose the first real test to a relationship that has mainly blossomed on the fairways.

Golf is not on the leaders’ official schedule this time, and that may be just as well. Abe was blindsided in early March by Trump’s decision to meet North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un. He was stung even more two weeks later when the president exempted every major American ally, except Japan, from stiff new tariffs on steel and aluminum.

U.S. and Japanese officials said they expected Abe, who is a hard-liner on North Korea, to warn Trump about the traps he faces in talking to Kim. They also expect him to confront the president on trade, something he has avoided since the two men first met, out of fear that it would stir Trump’s grudge against Japan, dating back to the 1980s, over its surpluses with the United States.

Trump injected even more uncertainty into the meeting by announcing that he would consider rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a regional trade pact, anchored by Japan, that he pulled the United States out of in his first week in office. But he also reiterated his determination to negotiate a new trade agreement directly with Japan, which Abe has resisted, tweeting that Japan “has hit us hard on trade for years!”

“Abe’s reputation as an adroit manager of his personal relationship with Trump has been a political asset for him at home,” said Daniel R. Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs. “But it’s been badly dented by this series of bombshells.”

“Is this still a buddy movie?” he said, “or is Abe the ex?”

White House officials insist it is still the former, pointing out that Abe is the only leader to be a repeat guest at Trump’s estate, Mar-a-Lago. The men have met six times and spoken by phone 20 times, though not since March 8, the evening that Trump stunned Abe, as well as his own aides, by accepting Kim’s invitation to a meeting.

Trump, a senior administration official said, has a lot of respect for Abe’s views on North Korea. In two days of meetings — alone and with their aides — the leaders are likely to discuss issues ranging from the demands Trump will make of Kim to the venue for the meeting.

Among the most politically salient issues for Abe is the status of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. He is expected to ask Trump to raise the matter with Kim in their meeting, and a person briefed on the White House’s preparations said the president would probably assure Abe that he would do so.

Still, for Abe, who has been a stalwart supporter of Trump’s sanctions against North Korea, the summit meeting between Trump and Kim raises other problems. The first is that it leaves Japan isolated in what has been a round robin of diplomacy involving North Korea.

South Korea, China and the United States have all been in contact with the North about potential meetings. Japan has not. If anything, anti-Tokyo propaganda in North Korea has intensified as Kim has reached out to leaders in Seoul, Beijing and Washington.

Japan, moreover, has different security concerns than those of the United States. While Trump is likely to press Kim to halt development of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which could theoretically strike U.S. territory, Japan is much more concerned about the North’s medium-range missiles, which have landed in waters around Japan.

U.S. officials declined to say whether Trump would raise the issue of intermediate-range missiles, repeating only his general demand that North Korea relinquish its nuclear arsenal.

“The coordination between the Japanese and the White House is excellent,” said Michael J. Green, a senior Asia adviser to President George W. Bush. “But the problem is that the president is so unpredictable.”

Trump’s treatment of Japan on trade is a case in point. He initially said he planned to impose metals tariffs on all nations to buoy a struggling U.S. industry. But one by one, U.S. allies, including Canada, Mexico, Australia, the European Union, Brazil and South Korea, were given exemptions to the tariffs — all except for Japan.

“That’s exactly what we want to ask the U.S.,” said Takehiro Shimada, a spokesman for the Japanese Embassy in Washington. “Why?”

Some analysts said it was a calculated attempt to gain leverage over Japan in coming trade talks.

“Logically, they should have excluded Japan. They didn’t,” said William Reinsch, an Asia trade expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “They’re going to twist Abe’s arm when he shows up.”

When Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, he proposed a bilateral trade deal with Japan in its place. But Japan’s deputy prime minister, Taro Aso, ruled out that possibility in March, saying that such a negotiation would lead to unnecessary pain for Japan.

Instead, Japan forged ahead with a deal among the accord’s 11 remaining members, which they reached on March 8. Japan maintains that this agreement is still fragile, and that negotiating another pact with the United States could put its success at risk.

But Trump’s about-face on the Trans-Pacific Partnership could breathe new life into trade talks. Japan has said it would be willing to enter a one-on-one deal only if it would serve as a bridge to the United States’ getting back into the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“If you want to try to get the Japanese into talks,” Reinsch said, “I think the best way to do that is to tell them we’re prepped for rejoining the TPP.” The Japanese responded to Trump’s statement about the trade pact with a mix of puzzlement and cautious optimism. U.S. officials said they expected both the tariffs and the Trans-Pacific pact to come up during the meeting, and noted that Trump has indicated a willingness to grant further exemptions if he can come to agreeable terms.

The trouble could flare if Trump tries to strike a tougher deal with Japan than his predecessor did.

Japan is wary of the bullying approach the Trump administration has taken to revising global trade pacts. In particular, it is unlikely to give additional concessions on agriculture, after opening up its heavily protected markets to the other members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

“For them, that is a nonstarter,” said Wendy Cutler, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Abe, who is trying to weather a political scandal at home, has little room for maneuver with Trump. Until now, he has largely delegated trade-related matters to Aso, who has been carrying on an economic dialogue with Vice President Mike Pence. But White House officials are increasingly frustrated by what they regard as slow-walking on the part of the Japanese.

“Abe knows he’s walking into a meeting where Trump may have a short fuse on trade,” Russel said.