A Tokyo summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump ended without any unpredictable remarks from the U.S. leader, a prospect some Japanese officials had feared could greatly increase tensions over sensitive bilateral trade issues.
At the news conference, Tokyo appeared to have avoided that scenario and instead succeeded in demonstrating a strong bilateral relationship.
Trump spoke for several minutes at the outset of the news conference. He spoke calmly, possibly reading out a prepared statement.
For the most part, Trump praised the strength of the nations’ bilateral ties and only very briefly touched on trade issues as he wrapped up his initial remarks.
“The U.S. and Japan are also working to improve our economic relationship, based on principles of fairness and reciprocity,” Trump said.
“We are currently negotiating a bilateral trade agreement that would benefit both of our economies. Our goal is to reduce our trade deficit with Japan” and remove trade barriers, he said. Trump, however, didn’t go much further beyond that.
On Friday, a day before Trump arrived in Tokyo, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official cautioned reporters that a summit meeting between two top leaders is always “unpredictable” and that it was impossible to say what they would discuss.
However, Trump didn’t directly challenge Abe, the foreign leader arguably closest to the U.S. leader, at least in public, as Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party is facing a critical July Upper House poll — and the possibility of a double election including the Lower House.
At the outset of the summit meeting with Abe on Monday, Trump also said he expects that the two countries can clinch a bilateral trade pact in August, after the election.
“Great progress being made in our Trade Negotiations with Japan. Agriculture and beef heavily in play. Much will wait until after their July elections where I anticipate big numbers!” Trump tweeted Sunday while in Tokyo.
When asked at the news conference if the two countries will reach a major trade agreement in August, Abe didn’t answer.
Experts are split over whether the two countries might be approaching a trade agreement behind the scenes, as indicated by Trump.
Kazuhiro Maeshima, a professor at Tokyo’s Sophia University, called it a possibility because U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and economic revitalization minister Toshimitsu Motegi have already engaged in intensive talks.
Tsuneo Watanabe, a senior fellow at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, said Abe probably hasn’t agreed on any time frame because Japan’s basic tactic has been to prolong the talks.
But trade wasn’t the only issue on the agenda Monday. At the news conference, Trump and Abe said the two countries are standing firm against North Korea.
On Tuesday, the leaders plan to board Japan’s largest warship, the Kaga, which is set to be remodeled into an aircraft carrier, in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.
“The essence of our approach if peace through strength,” Trump said. “This is a strong alliance and the U.S.-Japan alliance is steadfast and ironclad.”
Trump, however, appeared more conciliatory than Abe on North Korea. Referring to the latest firing of short-range ballistic missiles by the North earlier this month, Trump tweeted on Sunday: “North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me. I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”
Trump was apparently referring to U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, who on Saturday told reporters that the firing did violate U.N. security council resolutions. That comment was an apparent effort to ease concerns in Japan, which is in range of the North’s short-range missiles.
During Monday’s news conference, Trump didn’t clearly describe the latest firing of short-range ballistic missiles by North Korea as a violation of United Nations resolutions.
However, later at the same news conference, Abe made a point of arguing that they were in fact violations, appearing to reveal a gap in the leaders’ approaches to dealing with the North.
Watanabe said Trump is still putting pressure on Pyongyang to denuclearize but that he might appear more flexible than Abe because he is always thinks of making a deal in negotiations.
That is why he often swings heavily from side to side during negotiations and why he appears to be in the “dialogue” phase, Watanabe said.
“I don’t think there is a gap between the U.S. and Japan over North Korean issues. If it’s a ballistic missile fired, it’s automatically recognized as violation of U.N. resolutions,” a senior Japanese diplomat argued.
If there is any difference in approach toward the North, “it should be just in the way you send out a message,” the official said.
Staff writer Sakura Murakami contributed to this report