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Trump talks ‘trade imbalance’ on day one of Japan visit

President Trump, who began a four-day state visit to Japan today, used his first appearance there to criticize what he calls the ‘trade imbalance’ between the two countries. Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss Japan-U.S. relations, North Korea and the president’s trip.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For more on the Japan U.S. relationship and the President and First Lady state visit we turn to Sheila Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She's also the author of 'Japan Re-Armed' and she joins us now from Washington D.C..

    This visit the first by Donald Trump to see or actually any major world leader to see the new emperor, how big of a deal is that and in Japan?

  • Sheila Smith:

    It's a huge deal Hari. This is the coming on coming of age of the new emperor and empress and it will be their first international state visit. It's also important for Japan to show that the relationship with President Trump and with United States is the priority for them. There will be a large G-20 meeting next month in Japan. So lots of state leaders will be coming to the country. So this really sets the stage for the Japanese to say, this is an alliance that matters to us.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And one of the pressing concerns in that region right now is North Korea and the kind of missile tests that they've been having and really the U.S.'s posture on what we consider to be a problem and what we don't.

  • Sheila Smith:

    Exactly. And you know the Japanese have watched very closely the president's diplomacy with Kim Jong-un the leader of the DPRK. Prime Minister Abe has been very supportive of the president's engagement with Mr. Kim but he has also continued to advocate maximum pressure in other words, not releasing or relieving the North Koreans of the sanctions that the United Nations has imposed on them. So those recent missile tests there was a little bit of a question in Tokyo about the American response to them. Do they matter? Do they not?

    And I think you saw already National Security Adviser Bolton making very clear in a press conference that yes, they violate U.N. sanctions and therefore they do matter.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    On the one hand we are very concerned about missiles that can go all the way across the ocean but the Japanese and everyone in the region is much more concerned about anything that can strike them.

  • Sheila Smith:

    Exactly. And the arsenal of North Korean missiles in the short and medium range a short range of course being able to hit South Korea and the more medium range reaching all the way across Japan, those are the ones that our allies care about and there are a lot of them. And the North Koreans in 2017 set off barrages of these missiles to demonstrate that our allies in the region were vulnerable to the North Korean arsenal.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Let's talk a little bit about trade as well. Right now as the United States tries to basically renegotiate NAFTA on the one hand there's also the possible tariffs and the existing tariffs that are happening in China but kind of it's hanging in the air whether or not we're going to do something about how we deal with the auto industry and a huge impact on the American consumer if we did something with Japanese made cars?

  • Sheila Smith:

    Exactly. And you know Prime Minister Abe has set up this visit to be a very diplomatically warm welcome for Japan. But hovering not far under the surface of course is this bilateral free trade talk, the talks that are going to reach an agreement between United States and Japan later this year.

    There's a lot of friction, as you pointed out, the president's use of tariffs has not, Japan has not been immune to that, the steel and aluminum tariffs that were imposed on our trading partners also affected Japan as it did Europe.

    But it's really the auto industry I think in Japan that would face the largest setback if the United States decided to go in that direction. Just a day or two ago the U.S. announced it would postpone that decision. So that leverage on the part of the president is still hanging out there for Japan and he landed and immediately met with Japanese business leaders in Tokyo to say, your trade deficit with us is a problem. We're going to correct the problem.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And where is Japan's economy right now? Where is that kind of their overall health when it terms to try to shore up their relationship with the United States, especially as the United States has more trouble negotiating with China?

  • Sheila Smith:

    Well Japan's finally back on a a growth trajectory as you know for almost all the way through the 1990s. The Japanese economy sputtered in fact was in recession for much of it. So Prime Minister Abe, through a very aggressive focus on monetary fiscal and policy and to a certain extent some structural reforms, has attempted to jump-start Japanese growth. Slow but nonetheless positive for the Japanese economic future.

    Whatever happens in the global economy of course the Japanese are very vulnerable to and so any kind of distortions such as the trade conflict between United States and the P.R.C., any kind of conflict in the Middle East, the conversation today about Iran, those would all be tremendously important for Japan.

    But the bilateral trading relationship and economic partnership with the United States is really vital to Japan. It's not just that they export and import from the United States but there's also foreign direct investment here in the United States that creates somewhat just a little short of a million American jobs. So Japan is deeply enmeshed in our national economy as well.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    All right Sheila Smith, Senior Fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Thanks so much for joining us.

  • Sheila Smith:

    Thank you Hari for having me.

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