Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might have got exactly what he wanted in his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Abe's three-day visit to the United States, the first since the inauguration of the Trump administration, was marked by friendly overtones and included two nights of dinners in a row and golfing in Palm Beach, Florida, where the president hosted the Japanese leader at his winter estate. Trump gave assurances to Abe over the bilateral security alliance while remaining silent over his earlier aggressive criticism of Japan over trade and currency issues.
But if Trump had merely tamed his protectionist pitch to play up his friendly rapport with Abe, those issues may have just been set aside to be taken up later in the "bilateral dialogue framework" that the two leaders agreed to create to discuss trade and investment matters. A close aide to Abe reportedly said the two leaders confirmed that the trade disputes of the 1980s were a "thing of the past." But Trump's remarks before the meeting had been enough to raise the specter of the bitter trade friction between the two countries. It's not clear whether Abe succeeded in changing the minds of the U.S. president during the talks. The government needs to hold Japan's ground in the upcoming dialogue.
Concern over Trump's remarks during his election campaign last year urging Japan along with South Korea to pay more for the cost of security alliances with the U.S. — which put his commitment to the alliances in doubt — may have already been alleviated when U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis, visiting Tokyo a week earlier, called Japan's host-nation support of the U.S. troops deployed in the country "a model of cost-sharing." The two leaders affirmed that the Japan-U.S. alliance is "the cornerstone of peace and security" in the Asia-Pacific region. Just as Mattis did, Trump assured Abe that the bilateral security alliance covers the Senkaku Islands — an assurance that Abe's administration had earlier sought from Trump's predecessor Barack Obama to make sure the U.S. will stand behind Japan in the bitter territorial row with China over the islets in the East China Sea.