WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump expressed confidence Friday that a bilateral trade deal between the U.S. and Japan can be reached quickly despite ongoing differences over tariffs as he opened talks with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House.
Abe is the rare world leader who has managed to develop a personal relationship with Trump. They get along so well that Abe and his wife, Akie, joined Trump and his wife, Melania, for a couples’ dinner Friday at the White House to celebrate the U.S. first lady’s 49th birthday. The leaders planned to meet for a quick round of golf on Saturday.
But all the friendliness they put on display in the Oval Office didn’t mask their differences over trade. Trump complained about Japan’s tariffs on U.S. agricultural products while Abe aired his frustrations with U.S. levies on Japanese automobiles. Trump has slapped tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from Japan and has held the threat of even steeper auto tariffs over Abe’s head.
A senior Japanese government official said after the Oval Office discussions that “based upon the trust between the two countries,” the two leaders “agreed to accelerate the discussions in order to achieve an early result on Japan-U.S. trade talks.”
Both Trump and Abe sounded optimistic that an agreement will be struck.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, the prime minister said he told Trump that the two countries will “see a mutually beneficial outcome for both of our countries.”
“Ultimately, we have a chance to make a good and very long-term trade deal with Japan,” Trump said.
Asked later about the timetable, Trump said: “I think it can go quickly. I think it can go fairly quickly. Maybe by the time I’m over there (in May), maybe we sign it over there. But it’s moving along very nicely and we’ll see what happens.”
But economy minister Toshimitsu Motegi spoke more cautiously following the Abe-Trump meeting, saying that any trade deal could require approval from U.S. Congress, a sign that Tokyo may be seeking substantial concessions in exchange for opening up its agricultural markets.
“I don’t think the president was referring to the timing when the agreement will take effect,” Motegi said in Washington. “In principle these trade deals come into effect after coming to an agreement, then getting congressional or similar approval. This was the case with the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he added, referring to the multilateral trade deal rejected by Trump.
Abe’s visit is to set the stage for a trip to Japan that Trump is taking in late May to celebrate Crown Prince Naruhito’s becoming the new emperor.
Trump announced that he and Abe may take in a sumo wrestling match during the trip to Tokyo.
“I’ve always found that fascinating” and “something I’ll enjoy very much,” he said about the match. He said a trophy is being made for him to present to the winner.
Crown Prince Naruhito is set to become the next emperor on Wednesday. He will assume the throne after his father, Emperor Akihito, abdicates a day earlier.
Trump joked that when Abe originally invited him to Tokyo as the first official guest after the new Emperor takes over, he was not sure he could attend.
“I said, ‘Gee I don’t know if I can make it. Let me ask you a question. How big is that event compared to the Super Bowl, for the Japanese?’ And the prime minister said it’s about 100 times bigger. I said, ‘I’ll be there, if that’s the case, I’ll be there,'” Trump said.
The senior Japanese government official said the two leaders agreed that the governments would coordinate closely with each other and with South Korea to achieve the denuclearization of North Korea. He said Abe thanked Trump for twice raising the issue of Japanese abductees held in North Korea during his February summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Trump and Abe met on the heels of Thursday’s nuclear talks between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump’s second summit with Kim in Hanoi in February ended with no agreement, but Trump said earlier Friday that progress is being made.
“I have a great relationship with Kim Jong Un,” Trump told reporters. He said he appreciated help on the issue from Russia and China.
Kim had harsher words for Trump. North Korea’s state-run Korean Central News Agency said Friday that Kim strongly criticized Washington for taking a “unilateral attitude in bad faith” that caused the diplomatic standstill following the Hanoi meeting.
The senior Japanese official said Abe and Trump also agreed to enhance the “deterrence and capabilities” of the U.S.-Japan alliance and reaffirmed their intention to cooperate further to ensure a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region.
Looking ahead to the June 28-29 Group of 20 meeting in Osaka, the two agreed to seek a summit agreement on key issues, including trade, the digital economy, the issue of maritime plastic waste, infrastructure investment, and women’s empowerment, said the official, who did not want to be otherwise identified.
Abe has had more face time and telephone conversations with Trump than any other world leader, said Michael J. Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
Abe was the first foreign leader to personally court Trump after he won the 2016 presidential election, visiting the then-president-elect at his Trump Tower penthouse in New York and bringing a golf club as a gift. They share a love of golf and have teed off together both in Japan and the U.S.
Trump said he and Abe would head out very early on Saturday to play a “quick round of golf at a very beautiful place on the Potomac River. I won’t name the place, but it’s beautiful.”
Trump said he asked his wife if she’d like the Abes to join them for her birthday dinner “and she said, ‘I can’t think of anybody I’d rather have.'” Abe told Trump: “I do look forward to celebrating this special day with you.”
The United States and Japan announced in September 2018 that they would open trade negotiations. Talks opened earlier this month.
U.S.-Japan friction over trade mounted after Trump took office and set out to reduce a chronic trade imbalance totaling $67.6 billion in Japan’s favor last year, according to U.S. figures.
The world’s third largest economy only reluctantly agreed to the talks with the U.S. as a way to stave off tariffs that Trump has threatened to impose on imported autos. Last fall, Abe said at a news conference on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly that the U.S. had agreed not to impose tariffs that had been threatened on Japanese autos. The U.S., however, could still impose the so-called Section 232 tariffs on autos, which would escalate trade tensions.
The U.S.-China trade war is slowing the Japanese economy. Japan’s exports to China fell 9.4% from a year earlier, although exports to the United States rose 4.4%, exacerbating the politically sensitive trade surplus.
The trade talks also focus on farm products.
Japanese officials have said they made significant concessions on imports of dairy and other farm products in earlier trade negotiations and that’s as far as Tokyo is willing to go. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party has traditionally relied on strong support from rural voters and has sought to protect the country’s farm sector from foreign competition.