A day after Donald Trump’s shocking victory, the U.S. president-elect and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held a 20-minute teleconference Thursday morning and agreed to meet on Nov. 17 in New York if possible, a senior official said.
Abe, speaking from the Prime Minister’s Office, extended his congratulations to Trump and said he is convinced “America will be made even greater” under his leadership, he was quoted as saying by the official, who briefed reporters in Japanese.
In response, Trump praised Abe’s economic achievements. He also said he is looking forward to working together with Abe over the next few years and will “further strengthen the great partnership” between the U.S. and Japan, the official said.
Abe had reportedly proposed to Trump’s team that the two leaders chat by phone after the election. Abe is reportedly the fourth foreign leader to have spoken with Trump since the election.
Like other countries, Japan is eager to build ties with the maverick businessman. Before the election, Abe met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in September in New York on her request, but did not meet with Trump.
Usually, a Japanese prime minister won’t agree to meet with a U.S. presidential candidate, according to Japanese officials.
After Trump cemented his victory, senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office scrambled to minimize any potential political damage by playing down the negative aspects of Trump’s election.
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized what he described as an unfair security treaty with the Japan. Abe has based all of his foreign policy on Japan’s military ties with the U.S.
Later, senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office rushed to make contact with Trump before he gets sworn in on Jan. 20.
“We consider that what a candidate said during a political campaign can be different from what the candidate will actually do after taking office,” one of the officials said.
“There may be some issues over specific policies, but the basic relations between the two countries won’t change,” the official insisted.
During the heated presidential campaign, Trump repeatedly painted Japan as a trade rival and said Tokyo shoulder the entire cost of maintaining U.S. military forces now stationed in the country.
Trump said the bilateral security treaty was overwhelmingly lopsided and even threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from Japan and South Korea and let them defend themselves — possibly with their own nuclear weapons — a move that would drastically change the military balance in East Asia and possibly the world.
“Japan is better if it protects itself against this maniac of North Korea,” Trump told CNN in an interview March 29. “They have to protect themselves or they have to pay us.”
The military alliance with the U.S. has been the centerpiece of Japan’s diplomatic policies, as Tokyo is trying to keep China’s military expansion in both the East and South China seas in check while stopping North Korea’s nuclear weapon and ballistic missile development.
If Trump makes good on his campaign rhetoric, it would deal a serious blow to Japan and the region.
Abe, in Thursday’s teleconference, emphasized that peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, which he described as “the center of world economic growth,” is a source of strength for the U.S., according to the official who briefed reporters.
A strong Japan-U.S. alliance is “indispensable” to support this peace and stability, Abe reportedly told Trump, adding he hopes to meet with him as soon as possible. Trump welcomed Abe’s proposal and agreed to adjust his schedule to meet him possibly on Nov. 17, the official said.
Abe plans to stop in New York on his way to Lima for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on Nov. 19 and 20.
Japanese officials are hoping that Trump will come around once he is sworn in, but that may just be wishful thinking.
During their conversation, Trump and Abe only exchanged diplomatic greetings and didn’t touch on any potentially sensitive defense and trade issues.
Asked whether they will discuss sensitive issues such as defense spending and the Trans-Pacific Partnership during their first meeting in New York, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said building trust will probably take priority over specific topics.
“Today (the two) have just agreed to meet. It’s important to first build up personal trust and talk about basic things,” Suga told a news conference Thursday. “No specific agenda to discuss has been decided yet.”