Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday he has earned U.S. President Donald Trump’s backing in seeking closer ties with Russia in a bid to resolve a long-standing territorial row over islands off Hokkaido that Japan wants returned.
“President Trump understands Japan’s (policy) to promote dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin to resolve the territorial issue,” Abe told a TV program after returning from the United States, where he held his first summit with Trump on Friday and Saturday in Washington and Florida.
Trump has adopted a softer stance toward Russia than his predecessor, Barack Obama, who was at odds with Putin over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
The Obama administration had been cautious about Abe courting Putin with economic cooperation and even requested that he refrain from visiting Russia at one point, government sources said earlier.
Abe also said that he agreed with Trump on the need to engage in dialogue with Putin to resolve outstanding global issues, including Syria and Ukraine.
At their summit Friday, Abe and Trump confirmed the strength of the bilateral alliance, with Trump affirming that the United States is committed to the defense of Japan, including if the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which are claimed by China, come under attack.
They also agreed to launch a high-level economic dialogue to be headed by Japanese Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence covering trade, macroeconomic policy as well as infrastructure and energy projects, Japanese officials said.
Following the summit at the White House in Washington, the leaders flew together to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago vacation estate in Palm Beach, Florida, where they played golf and had dinner on both Friday and Saturday.
Abe said in the TV program he had “frank talks on the bilateral alliance and regional matters” with Trump over golf.
The prime minister said he believes Trump is “gradually” gaining understanding of the significance of the 12-party Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, although Trump has announced the United States will withdraw from it.
Abe also said Trump, who has been critical of the United States’ trade deficit with Japan, now knows that the “(current) structure is different from that of the trade frictions in the 1980s and 1990s.”
Abe said he explained to Trump that exports of Japanese cars are decreasing compared with the 1980s and 1990s, and more Japanese cars are produced in the United States.
In another TV program on Monday, Abe said that the Trump administration would take a “stronger stance” in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat.
“The Obama administration was cautious about using military power. (But) Mr. Trump has various options on the cards. He thinks he wants to resolve the issue diplomatically,” Abe said.
In the program, Abe also said Trump did not bring up the subject of Japan’s financial contributions for hosting U.S. military forces during any of their meetings.
The Japanese government had been concerned that Trump could urge it to pay more after he repeatedly said during the presidential campaign that Japan and other U.S. allies should cover more of the costs of stationing U.S. forces or else defend themselves.
The issue is “over,” Abe said. “The president made no reference to it. Rather, he expressed gratitude to us for warmly hosting the U.S. Marines.”