Kicking off a tour meant to reassure Asian allies over the United States’ commitment to the region, Vice President Mike Pence met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Tuesday, praising the firm bilateral alliance as a “model” for other nations in the region.
The “U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific,” Pence said during a joint news conference with Abe at the Prime Minister’s Office.
“Our nations’ security and prosperity depend on this vital region, and the U.S. will continue to ensure that all nations, large and small, can thrive and prosper,” Pence said.
Pence’s visit, however, comes as U.S. President Donald Trump has further toughened his trade stance against Asian nations, including Japan.
Trump pulled the U.S. out of Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement shortly after taking office. He has also slapped tariffs on Japanese steel and aluminum products. Washington has also forced Tokyo to start talks on a possible bilateral trade agreement by threatening to further raise tariffs on Japanese vehicles and auto parts exported to the U.S.
Facing reporters in Tokyo, Pence generally praised U.S.-Japan ties, in relation to both security and trade. He pointed to Japan’s investment in the U.S., saying it has generated “nearly a million American jobs.”
“Mr. Prime Minister, we are grateful for Japan’s renewed investment in America,” he said.
Pence, however, did not forget to repeat Trump’s tough rhetoric on Japan. He claimed that the U.S. trade imbalance with Japan has gone on for too long and said “American products and services too often face barriers to compete fairly in Japanese markets.”
“The best opportunity for free, fair and reciprocal trade will come in a bilateral trade agreement,” Pence said.
The two leaders didn’t take any questions from reporters during the appearance.
The planned talks, which are aimed at working toward a possible bilateral trade pact, will officially start sometime after mid-January at the earliest, as the White House can only start such talks 90 days after notifying Congress of its intent to do so.
During the media event, Abe emphasized the strength of the Japan-U.S. alliance, saying the two leaders were able to discuss policies before attending upcoming summit meetings with Asian leaders.
Both Abe and Pence said that the two agreed to maintain a “pressure campaign” to continue economic sanctions against North Korea until “final, fully verifiable denuclearization of North Korea” is achieved.
“The U.S. and Japan will accept nothing less,” Pence said.
At the same time, Abe argued that North Korea would be able to look forward to a “bright future” if they abandoned their nuclear and ballistic missile development programs.
“In North Korea, there are abundant resources and hard-working people. Once issues are resolved, they can envision a bright future for themselves,” Abe said.
Regarding China, Abe’s late October visit to Beijing significantly improved that bilateral relationship, which had been heavily strained since 2012 when Tokyo nationalized some of the Japan-controlled, China-claimed Senkaku Islands, which are known as the Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea.
During Tuesday’s meeting with Pence, Abe said he “explained the outcome” of his trip to China. Abe said that he and Pence agreed that “it is important for Japan and the U.S. to continue our close collaboration in conducting constructive dialogue with China.”
Abe’s visit to Beijing came as officials in Washington, including Pence himself, have been stepping up criticism of China over trade and security issues. Senior Japanese diplomats in Tokyo, however, have said that Abe’s trip has not drawn any negative reactions from Washington so far.