National / Politics

Trump security adviser sought to reassure Suga on Japan policy: source

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

During a recent stay in Japan, a former top U.S. security official and adviser to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump secretly met and gave assurances to Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, a high-ranking Japanese official has said.

Michael Flynn, formerly director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, was visiting the head office of the Liberal Democratic Party in Tokyo on Oct. 11, ostensibly to deliver a lecture on cybersecurity.

During the secret meeting, Flynn assured Suga that Washington would not change its diplomatic emphasis on the military alliance with Japan, even if Trump was elected president, the official said.

During the campaign, Trump had harshly criticized Japan as an unfair security and trade partner.

Suga found Flynn to be “a very respectable man,” the official told a group of reporters from major media outlets, on condition of anonymity.

The official appeared to be trying to assuage deep public concerns over the maverick businessman, who threatened to withdraw U.S. troops from Japan and let it defend itself against North Korea, possibly with its own nuclear weapons.

“I don’t think anyone would be able to drastically change the Japan-U.S. military alliance,” the official said, echoing comments later repeated by other Japanese officials trying to ease the shock stemming from Trump’s unexpected victory.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump will meet for the first time on Thursday in New York, putting Flynn’s reassurance to Suga to the test and assessing Trump’s apparent change in tone since the election.

The New York Times has listed Flynn among candidates Trump may tap for secretary of defense or director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“I want to make (the meeting) the first step to build up mutual trust” with the U.S. president-elect, Abe told an Upper House session on Tuesday.

“I’d like to exchange opinions (with Trump) over such issues as trade, economy and the Japan-U.S. alliance,” he added.

Most of Abe’s diplomatic policies, including those to keep China’s military expansion in Asia in check and to stop North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile development programs, are based on Japan’s military alliance with the U.S.

But during the campaign, Trump repeatedly painted Japan as an unfair trade and security partner, describing the alliance as one-sided.

Any damage to Japan’s ties with the U.S. would likely mean a severe blow for Abe’s administration.

After the Nov. 8 election, Trump has significantly softened his rhetoric, calling on Americans to “bind the wounds of division” in his first post-election speech.

Trump’s apparent about-face has prompted many Japanese officials and observers to believe — if not wish — that the U.S. president-elect may stop using provocative rhetoric and start acting like a “normal” politician with more realistic diplomatic approaches toward Japan, a longtime U.S. ally.

“We need to revise our profiling analysis of Mr. Trump,” said former Defense Minister and Liberal Democratic Party Secretary-General Shigeru Ishiba, in an interview published Nov. 10 on Nikkei Business Online.

Ishiba, too, met Flynn and exchanged opinions for about three hours in Tokyo last month. Flynn’s message for Japan as summarized by Ishiba: Don’t worry too much about Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign.

“Trump may have used radical rhetoric at first because he didn’t know much (about the security situation in Asia) … but he, as the president-elect, will now have more information, and he will understand the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance,” Ishiba was quoted as saying.

“In many cases, what a (U.S.) presidential candidate said during the campaign was different from what he actually did after he was elected,” Ishiba added.

Meanwhile, many observers suspect Trump may not have any comprehensive view of how he will deal with complex security situations involving Japan, China, Taiwan and the Koreas.

During the campaign, Trump rarely discussed any specific diplomatic policies for the Asia-Pacific region, except for his repeated calls on Japan and South Korea to shoulder more of the costs of maintaining U.S. troops in those countries.

On Tuesday, The Financial Times newspaper quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying he believes Trump has “no real Asia team yet.”

The newspaper reported that Tokyo and Beijing are struggling to identify and contact key Trump advisers.

“The Chinese ambassador is driving everyone crazy saying ‘who is in charge of China?’ ” an unnamed Trump adviser was quoted as saying.

Asked about FT’s report, Suga said Wednesday that Tokyo has already identified and contacted key persons “who are believed to be advising Trump” on Japan policies.

Suga meanwhile said Trump has yet to establish any formal team of Asian experts. But he maintained that Japan has already established contacts with persons who “will influence” such a team once it is formed.

Asked if the list includes Flynn, Suga didn’t confirm or deny, saying only that “various people” are included.

Hirotsugu Aida, professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and a former Washington bureau chief of Kyodo News, said he believes Trump might establish more realistic diplomatic policies now that he has become the president-elect.

Trump used radical rhetoric when speaking about Japan and other countries during the campaign to garner support from frustrated voters among the white lower middle class, Aida said.

“It’s rhetoric to say he would not use (government) money for the sake of other countries. So words themselves won’t carry much weight,” Aida said.

Trump supporters, he said, are likely to be preoccupied with how he will directly help their daily lives, such as through public works projects to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs.

“Now, Trump appears to be carefully considering what position he should take. Now, as the president-elect, he needs to get along with mainstream players of the Republicans and Congress,” he said.