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Trump calls Japan ‘crucial ally’ after arriving for first leg of Asia tour

Reuters, AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

U.S. President Donald Trump ramped up his tough rhetoric against North Korea when he arrived in Japan on Sunday, saying that the United States and its allies are prepared to defend freedom and that “no dictator” should underestimate U.S. resolve.

Trump kicked off a 12-day Asian trip and is looking to present a united front with Japan against North Korea through meetings with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe amid heightened tensions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests.

He told reporters on Air Force One en route to Asia that North Korea would figure prominently in discussions during the trip. He also singled out trade, which he said had been “badly handled” in the region for years.

Trump has rattled some allies with his vow to “totally destroy” North Korea if it threatens the United States and his dismissal of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man” on a suicide mission.

“No dictator, no regime, no nation should ever underestimate American resolve,” Trump told hundreds of cheering U.S. and Self-Defense Force service members in camouflage uniforms gathered at Yokota Air Base, on the outskirts of Tokyo, soon after he arrived.

“Every once in a while, in the past, they underestimated us. It was not pleasant for them, was it?” said Trump, who wore a leather bomber jacket as he addressed the troops.

North Korea’s recent actions, including several missiles that overflew Japan and Pyongyang’s sixth and largest nuclear test, have raised the stakes in the most critical international challenge of Trump’s presidency.

Recent drills over South Korea by two U.S. strategic bombers have further raised tensions.

“We will never yield, never waver and never falter in defense of our freedom,” Trump said.

He told reporters earlier on Air Force One that a decision would be made soon on whether to add reclusive North Korea to a list of state sponsors of terrorism.

His administration also planned to take a different approach to dealing with the issue after years of what he termed “total weakness”, although he did not give any details.

“We want to get it solved. It’s a big problem for our country and the world, and we want to get it solved,” he said.

Abe told reporters before Trump’s arrival that he welcomed the visit as a chance to deepen bilateral ties by building upon the “friendship and trust” between the two leaders, fostered by several meetings that included a round of golf in Florida earlier this year.

“I hope we will be able to have thorough discussions about international issues, including North Korea,” he said.

Trump and his “friend” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe enjoy a close personal relationship and the three-day Japan leg of the trip is noticeably relaxed.

The two leaders are scheduled to play golf together with Japanese professional golfer Hideki Matsuyama at a country club just outside Tokyo before having dinner together.

After the summit the following day, Trump is scheduled to meet relatives of some of the Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

The meeting is a nod to Abe’s repeated efforts to make the abduction issue a talking point for the Trump administration. Abe and other Japanese officials heaped praise on Trump’s mention of prominent abductee Megumi Yokota, who was 13 years old when she disappeared in 1977, in his address at the U.N. General Assembly.

Trump could make an announcement on designating the North as a state sponsor of terror during this visit.

Abe and Trump are also expected to share their concerns about maritime security issues, eyeing China’s expansionary activities in the East and South China seas and Indian Ocean.

Trump’s visit to Japan comes just ahead of the annual leaders’ summits of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, members of which are engaged in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

He and Abe may use their meeting in Japan as an opportunity to align their thinking on the importance of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” before urging the other leaders to affirm the same.

Abe and Trump are also likely to stress their countries’ continued cooperation on economic and trade issues while demurring on the specifics of future bilateral trade, a sticking point in the relationship.

With Washington keen to pursue a Japan-U.S. trade deal that would likely put Tokyo in a weaker negotiating position, the issue is being worked out in a dialogue framework helmed by Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

Trump’s visit will allow both he and Abe to boast of the strength of bilateral ties, with the U.S. president set to meet Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace on Monday ahead of his summit with Abe.

The Japanese leader has emerged strengthened from a crushing victory in a snap election and has firmly supported Trump in his policy of exerting maximum pressure on Kim, backed up with the threat of military force.

Japan has seen missiles fired over its northern island amid threats by Pyongyang to “sink” it into the sea.

On Saturday, North Korea welcomed Trump to the region with a threat to increase its nuclear arsenal and said the idea of talks was “daydreaming,” according to the state-run KCNA news agency.

“Trump only has to play golf in Japan, as he knows Japan will follow (the US) whatever happens. Everything has been sorted out beforehand,” said Tetsuro Kato, political scientist at Tokyo’s Hitotsubashi University.

Before the trip, Trump warned China that Japan could take matters into its own hands.

“Japan is a warrior nation, and I tell China and I tell everyone else that listens, I mean, you’re gonna have yourself a big problem with Japan pretty soon if you allow this to continue with North Korea,” Trump said on Fox News.

While Trump has been in regular contact with the hawkish Abe during the North Korean missile crisis, he pointedly failed to speak to South Korean President Moon Jae-in for several days after Pyongyang’s second intercontinental ballistic missile test in July.

Analysts point to Abe and Moon’s contrasting approaches to the crisis as an underlying factor, although both leaders will be hoping to press Trump into reaffirming Washington’s steadfast commitment to their defense.

Abe has backed his line that “all options,” including military action, are on the table, while the more dovish Moon favors engagement with the North to bring it to the negotiating table.

Trump labeled Moon’s approach as “appeasement” on Twitter, a comment that did not go down well in the Blue House.

“The two sides have subtle differences in their positions,” said Kim Hyun-wook, a professor at the Korea National Diplomatic Academy. Trump will not follow the well-trodden path to the Demilitarized Zone dividing the Korean Peninsula — a visit derided in Washington as a bit of a “cliche.”

The groundwork for Trump’s trip was laid by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, who warned North Korea of a “massive military response, effective and overwhelming,” if Pyongyang resorted to using nuclear weapons.

On Friday, two supersonic U.S. B-1B Lancer bombers overflew the Korean Peninsula, as Seoul’s spy agency reportedly warned the North might be readying another missile test.

From Seoul, Trump and his wife Melania travel to China to meet his counterpart Xi Jinping who, like Abe, has solidified his grip on power, after being handed a second term.

He then travels to an Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam, before heading to a ASEAN gathering of Southeast Asian leaders.

Some observers were fretting that a gaffe by the famously ad-lib president could send tensions rising on the peninsula.

“It will be a disaster if he speaks off the cuff and without thinking,” said professor Koo Kab-woo from the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

“If Trump says anything that can provoke North Korea, it could send military tensions soaring again.”

Trump also said he planned to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin during his trip, the longest Asian tour by any U.S. leader since George Bush in 1992.

“I think it’s expected that we will meet,” he said. “We want Putin’s help on North Korea.”

Trade will also factor heavily during Trump’s trip as he tries to persuade Asian allies to agree to policies more favorable to the United States, a point Trump emphasized.

A centerpiece of the trip will be his APEC visit, where he will deliver a speech in support of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, which is seen as offering a bulwark in response to expansionist Chinese policies.

“One of the things we’re going to be very focused on is trade because trade has not been done well for 25 years by the United States with this part of the world, with any part of the world,” he said on Air Force One.

“We’re going to be discussing reciprocal trade. Fair, free but reciprocal,” he said.