NEW YORK – Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe described his talks Thursday with Donald Trump as “very warm,” analysts say Japan may need to consider more self-reliant diplomacy when working with the U.S. president-elect, whose “America first” rhetoric presumably will drive his foreign policy.
Abe, the first foreign leader to meet face to face with the billionaire businessman, took the opportunity to share his “basic views” amid uncertainty over the incoming leader’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific region.
The meeting was hastily fixed — agreed upon in telephone talks on Nov. 10, two days after Trump’s victory — and was cautiously watched by policymakers around the world who are concerned about Trump’s campaign remarks about the U.S. military presence overseas and trade policies.
After the talks in Trump Tower, Abe did not reveal details of the unofficial meeting but said he was “convinced” that he can “establish a relationship of trust” with Trump that is essential for the Japan-U.S. alliance to function.
“Mr. Trump would say reassuring things about the importance of the U.S.-Japan alliance, but what he would do as president about Japan, about China, about many other things is unknown,” said Gerald Curtis, the Burgess professor of political science at Columbia University.
During his campaign, he threatened to pull U.S. troops out of Japan and other allied countries unless they pay more for military protection. Trump has emphasized that he feels the U.S.-Japan security relationship is not a fair deal because the United States is obliged to defend Japan but Japan is not obligated to defend U.S. territory.
“The countries we are defending must pay for the cost of this defense. And if not, the U.S. must be prepared to let these countries defend themselves,” Trump said in April.
Japan, suspecting Trump misunderstands the cost borne by Tokyo in hosting 49,000 U.S. troops, is set to assert an “appropriate” sharing of costs between the two countries. Japan pays nearly ¥200 billion ($1.9 billion) in so-called host-nation support every year.
Tokyo will explain to Trump that the United States benefits from stationing troops in Japan, officials said.
“If he is a man who thinks with a profit-and-loss motivation, I think he will understand the benefits of U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region” such as keeping the military near China and North Korea under the U.S. forward deployment strategy, a senior official said.
Takashi Kawakami, a professor at Takushoku University, said, “Mr. Trump’s basic, businesslike thinking would not change” after becoming president. “He will likely see foreign policy as something to bargain for.”
“Japan would need to show what it can do for the interests of the United States and convince Mr. Trump that it is willing to defend itself and not rely on U.S. protection. Only then can Japan be seen by Mr. Trump as a partner he can make a deal with,” Kawakami said.
Japan has already begun to take steps to strengthen national security. New security legislation came into force in March, giving the Self-Defense Forces an expanded role. It ended the ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense — that is, defending allies under armed attack even if Japan itself is not attacked.
Japan has also resumed talks with South Korea on the signing of a pact to exchange military intelligence to strengthen security ties and better cope with threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile development. It has also bolstered ties on maritime security with Australia, India, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries amid the rising clout of China in the region.
Tokyo also seeks closer ties with Moscow. Abe will hold his third talks this year with Russian President Vladimir Putin this week on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation group’s summit in Peru. Putin will make an official visit to Japan in December to discuss economic cooperation and a territorial spat over disputed islands off Hokkaido.
As for the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which Trump opposes, Abe has warned that rejecting the free trade deal could push Asian countries to a different trade pact known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which includes China and is currently under negotiation.
Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Hiroshige Seko, who chaired the meeting of TPP members in Lima on Thursday, said that although the TPP is an important pact to counter protectionism, talks to conclude the RCEP also need to be accelerated.
The RCEP groups the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus Japan, China, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.
“What Mr. Abe is doing now, engaging in strengthening ties with countries, including U.S.-allied countries such as South Korea and the Philippines, is important,” Kawakami said. “Japan forging closer ties with Russia also helps elevate Mr. Abe’s bargaining power vis-a-vis Mr. Trump.”
After the Abe-Trump talks, China warned Friday against strengthened bilateral ties that could hurt “third parties.”
“We hope that any cooperation and bilateral arrangements of relevant countries will not damage the interests of third parties,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said when asked about the talks.
Noting that China welcomes the “development of normal state-to-state relations,” he also said that the security concerns of other countries should be respected and urged that all efforts be conducive to peace and stability in the region.
The comments marked China’s first official response to Abe and Trump’s talks, although the spokesman largely spoke in general terms, citing a lack of information on what the two had actually discussed.
Whether Trump’s administration will strengthen the U.S. military presence means much for China and Japan, whose bilateral relations have been troubled for many years over a territorial dispute and their escalating regional rivalry. Trump’s negative campaign statements about Japan made many officials in Tokyo worry about the future shape of ties between the two nations.
Some China watchers have pointed to the likelihood of Beijing gaining more space to play a bigger role in Asia after Trump takes office in January.
At the same time, China is concerned about Japan taking a more independent defense policy, which could result in the enhancement of its military capabilities.