NEW YORK – Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Donald Trump on Thursday seeking clarity on campaign statements by the president-elect that rattled the Tokyo government, later telling reporters he was confident Trump was a “trustworthy leader.”
After the hastily arranged 90-minute meeting at Trump Tower in Manhattan, Abe told reporters: “The talks made me feel sure that we can build a relationship of trust.” But he would not disclose specifics of the conversation because the talks were unofficial.
“I shared my basic views with Mr. Trump. We discussed a variety of issues,” Abe said in a statement released by his office.
The conversation came amid nervous tension among Japan’s leadership over the future strength of an alliance that is core to Tokyo’s diplomacy and security.
Abe and other Asian leaders were alarmed at Trump’s pledge during his campaign to make allies pay more for help from U.S. forces, his suggestion that Japan should acquire its own nuclear weapons and his staunch opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
The Republican president-elect will succeed Democratic President Barack Obama on Jan. 20.
Describing his conversation as “frank and candid” and held in a “warm atmosphere,” Abe said: “Our alliance will not function without trust. I came away convinced that President-elect Trump is a leader who can be trusted.”
He said he had agreed to meet again with Trump “at a convenient time to cover a wider area in greater depth.” It was not clear if such a meeting would occur before Trump’s inauguration.
Trump official Kellyanne Conway said earlier on Thursday in an interview with CBS that “any deeper conversations about policy and the relationship between Japan and the United States will have to wait until after the inauguration.”
In Tokyo on Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the Trump-Abe meeting has marked “a very good start” for Abe’s administration, which “puts its top priority on the Japan-U.S. Alliance.”
Suga noted a majority of pre-election surveys predicted Hillary Clinton was more likely to win than Trump. But a few days before the Nov. 8 poll, Abe, through Japan’s Foreign Ministry, asked Trump’s team to arrange a teleconference chat with Trump if he won, Suga said.
“We were thinking about what we should do if Trump’s administration was to be formed. That was part of our ‘crisis management,’ ” Suga said.
According to Suga, Trump’s side “welcomed very much” Abe’s request, which led to the teleconference on Nov. 10, in which Abe and Trump agreed to meet in New York.
Abe and Trump gave each other golfing gear as gifts during their meeting, according to a Japanese government statement.
Photographs taken inside the ornate meeting room at Trump Tower showed Abe and an interpreter along with Trump, his daughter Ivanka, her husband and Trump adviser Jared Kushner, and Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn.
A senior Trump official said on Thursday that Trump had offered Flynn the national security adviser position.
While it was not clear whether Flynn had accepted the job, a person familiar with the offer told Reuters: “When the president-(elect) of the United States asks you to serve, there is only one answer.”
Trump has been holed up in Trump Tower meeting with people who could fill senior roles on his governing team.
Finance Minister Taro Aso told reporters on Friday in Tokyo that it was beneficial for Abe to meet Trump before he becomes president, given the importance of Japan-U.S. relations.
Abe adviser Katsuyuki Kawai told Reuters he had spoken to several Trump advisers and lawmakers since arriving in Washington on Monday and had been told: “We don’t have to take each word that Mr. Trump said publicly literally.”
Abe has boosted Japan’s overall defense spending since taking office in 2012, while stretching the limits of the nation’s pacifist postwar Constitution to allow the military to take a bigger global role. Defense spending still stands at just over 1 percent of GDP compared with more than 3 percent in the United States.
The United States is projected to spend $5.745 billion for U.S. forces in Japan in the current 2017 fiscal year. According to the Defense Ministry, Tokyo’s expenses related to U.S. troops stationed in Japan totaled about ¥720 billion ($6.6 billion) in the year that ended in March.
Some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggested an image of Japan forged in the 1980s, when Tokyo was seen by many in the United States as a threat to jobs and a free-rider on defense.
The Trump adviser who spoke earlier in the week stressed a more positive view.
“Frankly, the prime minister has been more assertive and forthright in trying to make those changes to Japan’s global posture,” he said.
Abe was expected to see Obama at a summit in Peru on the weekend in what will be a seven-day overseas trip through Wednesday.
On the sidelines of APEC, he plans to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss economic cooperation and a decades-old territorial dispute that has prevented the two neighbors from concluding a post-World War II peace treaty.
Abe will also make an official visit to Argentina before returning to Tokyo on Wednesday.
Hours before Abe and Trump met, Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida met in Lima to discuss the Paris climate accord — a deal Trump has pledged to exit.
Some diplomats say that until Trump makes key appointments, it will be hard to assess his policies on security issues ranging from overseas deployments of U.S. troops, China’s maritime assertiveness and the North Korean nuclear threat.