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President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe both spoke of their close relationship Tuesday as the leaders prepared for their two-day summit at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida.
But experts say both leaders will have to confront lingering tensions over trade and the president’s upcoming meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, an event Trump did not discuss with Abe before it was announced publicly earlier this year.
Administration officials insist the president’s relationship with Abe is strong, despite the North Korea issue and recently imposed U.S. tariffs that do not exempt Japan.
Mr. Trump has met with Abe more often than he has with any other foreign leader, Matthew Pottinger, a member of the National Security Council, said at a news conference Tuesday; Abe has visited Trump at his Palm Beach estate before, during a trip in February 2017.
“Japan is a great friend and ally,” Larry Kudlow, the president’s chief economic adviser, told reporters in Florida prior to Abe’s arrival, though he noted “we have certain disagreements with respect to some of the trading issues. We’ll iron those out, hopefully.”
Here’s a look at what the leaders likely will discuss this week, and what’s next.
Trump has said he plans to meet in May or June with Kim on the subject of full denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. A venue and final date are not yet set.
“Japan and the United States have been pretty aligned on this maximum pressure strategy towards the North since last year,” said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
This week’s meetings with Abe are a chance to share the Trump administration’s thought processes and hopes for the summit prior to Kim’s meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on April 27, Smith said. At the April meeting, Moon and Kim are expected to sign a joint declaration where Kim formally will say he is willing to denuclearize his country.
Abe is concerned about North Korea’s use of medium-range missiles, which can reach Japan, not just intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, said Yuki Tatsumi, co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the Japan Program at the Stimson Center. “He would probably like to reiterate to President Trump, don’t just focus on ICBMs, because regional allies like us are in a more direct firing range with existing capabilities.”
The prime minister also is expected to emphasize the need to address the fate of Japanese abducted by the North Koreans, Smith said. When Trump went to Japan last year, he met with the families of the abductees.
“At a minimum, Abe needs to make sure that whatever happens between the U.S. and North Korea, the Japanese public does not get the perception that Abe was not consulted,” Tatsumi said. “In order to avoid that, he needs to be able to offer what Japan is willing to do to support the U.S.”
Just days before Abe’s visit, Trump directed Kudlow and his trade representative Robert Lighthizer to explore whether a better trade deal than the Trans-Pacific Partnership could be negotiated. Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP last year, fulfilling a campaign promise.
“If we choose to go down that path to improve it, we will have to be convinced that it’s worth our while,” Kudlow said at Tuesday’s briefing. “And I don’t think the president is convinced of that, to be honest.”
Last month, 11 countries, including Canada, Mexico and Japan, signed a free-trade agreement without the U.S., renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Abe might take the softening of Trump’s stance on the TPP as encouragement to try to revive U.S. involvement in the multilateral agreement, Smith said. “If Mr. Abe has done nothing else, he has attempted to persuade Mr. Trump that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is not only good for Japan and for the region but it’s good for the United States as well.”
But some of the signatory countries might not even want the U.S. back if it means substantially changing the current deal, said Shihoko Goto, senior associate for Northeast Asia at the Wilson Center.
Most of the agreement is the same as the former TPP, but the new deal does not contain some of the same intellectual property protections. “Washington would certainly ask for the 20 provisions that were suspended to be reintroduced, which would cause a divide among the current member countries,” she said.
Other trade issues could come up in Abe’s meetings with Trump, including the recently imposed U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum, the analysts said. In March, Trump excluded six countries, including Canada and Mexico, from those U.S. import duties, but not Japan.
Both leaders are under stress in their own political systems, Smith said. In Japan, Abe is accused of giving his friends preferential treatment and of bureaucrats reportedly doctoring documents to cover it up. Trump has felt pressure from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the president’s 2016 campaign and its possible ties to Russia, and from several high-profile departures from the White House. Both leaders appear weaker than they were a year ago, Smith said, and therefore will want their meetings to go smoothly.
“U.S.-Japan relations have moved beyond the initial honeymoon period based on seemingly friendly personal relationship between Trump and Abe,” Tatsumi said. “Now, the two countries face concrete policy challenges that can create some tension.”
Larisa Epatko produced multimedia web features and broadcast reports with a focus on foreign affairs for the PBS NewsHour. She has reported in places such as Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Haiti, Sudan, Western Sahara, Guantanamo Bay, China, Vietnam, South Korea, Turkey, Germany and Ireland.
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