Abe Set to Turn on the Charm for Japan-Bashing Trump

  • Japan premier to be first world leader to meet president-elect
  • Abe will look to convince Trump on free trade, defense ties

Trade Set to Dominate Trump-Abe Talks

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to turn on the charm when he becomes the first world leader to meet U.S. President-elect Donald Trump since the election.

Prior to Thursday’s meeting, Abe lauded the real-estate mogul’s “extraordinary talents” in a congratulatory message, and canceled a speaking engagement in Peru to stop off in New York to hold talks with the president-elect. Abe says he’ll seek to work “hand-in-hand” with the next commander-in-chief, part of his efforts to deter Trump from pursuing the trade and security policies he espoused in his election campaign.

"It’s a tremendous honor to be ahead of other world leaders in meeting the U.S. president-elect," Abe told reporters before departing Tokyo. "I want to make this a meeting where we can discuss one another’s dreams for the future."

Trump has vowed to drop a Pacific trade deal and accused Japan of manipulating its currency. The president-elect has also stirred unease in Tokyo by threatening to pull U.S. troops out of the country unless it pays more for their upkeep, and has suggested Japan might have to develop its own nuclear weapons. For his part, Abe met with then-rival Hillary Clinton and not with Trump during a September visit to New York, but their relationship appeared to warm during their first phone call last week.

The closed-door meeting will take place in the president-elect’s Trump Tower residence at 5 p.m. in New York, Trump aide Kellyanne Conway told reporters Thursday morning. Trump will be joined by Vice President-elect Mike Pence, she said.

“It’s significant that Trump is seeing Abe first,” said Michael Green, a former member of the U.S. National Security Council and now senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Abe will be very smart about this and I think Trump will like him. Abe does well with the ‘strongmen.’”

Pacifist Constitution

Japan, whose own military is restricted by a pacifist constitution drafted by the U.S. after World War II, relies heavily on America’s troops and nuclear weapons for deterrence against growing threats from North Korea and an increasingly powerful China. About 50,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in Japan, and the U.S. is Japan’s second-largest trading partner.

Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso said in parliament Thursday that Trump’s reversals of tone on Japan indicated he was "to put it kindly, flexible; or to put it unkindly, ignorant" about the alliance.

Part of Abe’s goal in meeting with Trump will be to reassure his own electorate.

Two-thirds of respondents to a poll published by Fuji News Network on Monday said Trump’s election wouldn’t be good for U.S.-Japan relations, compared with about 17 percent who took the opposite stance. A separate poll by the Yomiuri newspaper on Tuesday found 58 percent saw Trump as bad for the economy -- the same proportion that views him as bad for national security.

“The U.S.-Japan alliance is the foundation of our security and our economy, so I want to have candid talks and build a relationship of trust,” Abe told parliament Monday.

Building Trust

While Abe said he wanted to discuss free trade and security with Trump, he is likely to soft-pedal areas of potential disagreement for the time being. When asked Wednesday whether Abe would raise the issue of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said trust-building would be the main focus at the first meeting.

Conway said Trump recognizes that Barack Obama is still president and that conversations he has with foreign leaders “are much less formal than they will be” once he takes office in January.

The encounter between Abe and Trump will take place with Obama on his last foreign trip of his tenure. Both Abe and Obama are set to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this weekend in Lima, Peru.

Abe’s wife, Akie, is set to accompany him to New York and the couple will stay overnight before flying to Lima.

“Trump listens extremely carefully to what people say and asks questions about things he doesn’t know,” said Mitsunari Okamoto, one of the few Japanese politicians to have any direct knowledge of the president-elect.

Okamoto, a lawmaker with Abe’s junior coalition partner Komeito, met Trump about 16 years ago while working at an investment bank in New York. “He accepts facts and track records, so one approach is to share the facts with him” such as the number of jobs provided by Japanese companies in the U.S., the politician said.

Japan is the second-largest foreign investor in the U.S. after the U.K. and provides more than 800,000 jobs, many in the auto sector, according to the Department of Commerce.

Trump has yet to name his foreign and security policy team, so it’s unclear what security policies he will pursue, said Tsuneo Watanabe, senior research fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation in Tokyo. Still, he said, “Abe gets on pretty well with people who don’t see democratic values as a priority.”

“There is the issue of his temperament,” Watanabe said of Trump. “There’s a risk that he will over-react if he is provoked. And if that happens, allies have to stick with him.”

— With assistance by Kenzo Taniai, and Takashi Hirokawa

(Corrects to remove seventh paragraph reference to Japan being second-largest U.S. trade partner.)
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