Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump remained at loggerheads on big-picture trade issues on Wednesday after two days of talks, though the two leaders said they had agreed to begin discussions on what they called “free, fair and reciprocal” trade.
Speaking at a joint news conference at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the U.S. president said he and Abe “have agreed to intensify our trade and investment consultations.” Asked for clarification on whether this meant a bilateral trade deal, both leaders were coy.
Trump said he was working to reduce the $56.1 billion U.S. trade deficit with Japan by pushing to remove barriers to U.S. exports.
“The U.S. is committed to free, fair and reciprocal — very important word — trade, and we’re committed to pursuing a bilateral trading relationship that benefits both of our great countries,” Trump said.
Abe, however, said that while he is aware that the U.S. is interested in a bilateral trade deal, Japan’s position is that the Trans-Pacific Trade Partnership, which Trump took the U.S. out of last year, “is the best for both countries.”
“Based on that position we shall be dealing with the talks,” Abe said.
Japan has previously voiced reluctance over the prospect of a bilateral trade deal with the U.S., but Trump made clear that he has little interest in rejoining negotiations over the TPP unless the terms are dramatically altered.
Still, Trump did hold offer a slim chance that the U.S. could still return to the deal.
“I don’t want to go back into TPP, but if they offered us a deal that I can’t refuse on behalf of the United States, I would do it,” he said.
“But I like bilateral better. I think it’s better for our country. I think it’s better for our workers and I much would prefer a bilateral deal.”
Perhaps most notably, Trump also did not exempt Japan from steel and aluminum tariffs, as he did for Washington’s other key allies and partners, though he did say that a deal could be reached if the “massive trade deficit with Japan” could be slashed
“That would certainly be something we would discuss,” he said. “And I would be looking at sometime in the future to take them off” the tariff list.
During Abe’s visit Trump also sought to reassure him of the pair’s close alliance, as the president prepares to hold a historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by June. Trump and Abe spent Wednesday morning golfing at one of Trump’s nearby courses in their latest show of “golf diplomacy.”
Tokyo has raised concerns that when discussing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, Washington might press Kim only on long-range missiles that could hit the mainland United States — and not on the short- and medium-range missiles that pose an immediate threat to Japan.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Abe praised Trump for his support on the issue of the abductions by North Korean agents of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and ’80s.
Trump said it was clear from their talks that the abductee issue is “one of the truly most important things on Shinzo’s mind.” Trump said he wanted to see the “families reunited as soon as possible,” adding that the U.S. “will work very hard on that issue and we will work hard to try and bring those folks back — very, very hard.”
Pyongyang has acknowledged abducting 13 Japanese, while Tokyo maintains North Korea abducted 17. Five have been returned to Japan. North Korea says eight others died and denies the remaining four entered its territory. The U.S. itself is pushing for the release of three Americans.
On the North Korean denuclearization issue, Abe praised Trump’s leadership. “The situation surrounding North Korea, due to the decisive decision by President Trump on the first-ever U.S.-North Korea summit, is at a historical turning point,” he said.
Abe, who has been concerned over failed previous attempts at dialogue with Pyongyang, said that “past mistakes should never be repeated.”
“On this point, President Trump and I were in full agreement,” he said.
“Just because North Korea is responding to dialogue, there should be no rewards,” Abe said. “‘Maximum pressure’ should be maintained and actual implementation of concrete actions toward denuclearization will be demanded.”
Still, the prime minister said that if the North takes “the right path” under 2002’s Japan-North Korea Pyongyang Declaration, “there could be a possible path to settle the unfortunate past and to normalize diplomatic relations.”
Staff writer Tomohiro Osaki contributed to this report.
Gist of Abe-Trump news conference after summit talks
The following is the gist of a news conference held after summit talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday in Palm Beach, Florida.
The two leaders:
Reaffirm close cooperation on North Korean issues
Will continue campaign of maximum pressure until North Korea denuclearizes
Demand disarmament of ballistic missiles and other weapons of mass destruction in verifiable and irreversible way
Will make all possible efforts to bring Japanese abductees in North Korea back to Japan
Agree to intensify trade and investment consultations
Agree to start dialogue to achieve free, fair and reciprocal trade relationship
Prime Minister Abe:
Says Japan will continue to negotiate for exemption from additional U.S. steel tariffs
Sees Trans-Pacific Partnership accord as best trade deal for Japan and U.S.
Says he will walk away from meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un if he thinks it will not be fruitful
Says he would discuss exemption of Japan from additional steel tariffs if new trade deal acceptable to the United States is arranged
Says the United States will not return to TPP unless acceptable deal is offered
Reiterates willingness to discuss bilateral trade deal with Japan
Says the United States is exploring ways to expedite sale of U.S. defense equipment to Japan