President Donald Trump will welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Mar-a-Lago this week in an effort to shore up their relationship amid strains in the U.S.-Japan alliance ahead of Trump’s potential summit with the leader of North Korea.
Abe is set to arrive Tuesday at Trump’s winter resort in Palm Beach for two days of meetings as concerns mount in Tokyo that Trump’s risky diplomatic gambit with Kim Jong Un could undermine Japan’s security. Abe also was blindsided by Trump’s decision not to grant Japan a waiver on new steel and aluminum tariffs, as he did for other U.S. allies and partners.
The double-whammy amounted to a gut punch for Abe and left some in Tokyo questioning his strategy of cozying up to the mercurial American president. Abe was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after the election, and the two have met and spoken 20 times — more interactions than Trump has had with any other world leader. It is Abe’s second visit to Mar-a-Lago, after meetings and a round of golf last year.
Now, the question is whether Abe’s influence will endure in the face of the whirlwind geopolitical maneuvering of east Asian leaders, including South Korean President Moon Jae-in, a liberal who has led the push for more diplomatic engagement with the Kim regime, to the consternation of Tokyo. Moon and Kim are scheduled to meet later this month, and Kim recently visited President Xi Jinping in Beijing.
Takao Toshikawa, a veteran political journalist in Tokyo, said the conservative Abe’s immediate task was to use his face time with Trump to ameliorate fears of "Japan passing" — the notion that the United States is prepared to downgrade its bedrock security ally in favor of other priorities. Toshikawa employed the phrase "Japan dissing" to describe Trump’s recent moves.
"The summit next week will be the most important of his tenure," he said, noting that it was difficult for Abe to prepare for the meeting because Trump is so unpredictable.
"If Trump makes rapid progress in his talks with Kim, that could put Abe in a very disadvantageous position. Abe is afraid of that," Toshikawa said. "So Abe should tell Trump that Japan and the U.S. need to act as one and urge Trump to understand Japan’s position on North Korean issues, as well as economic issues."
Trump aides played down suggestions of a rift. The two leaders will open with a bilateral meeting, followed by several working sessions that include their national security teams. Topics include trade, energy and China, as well as North Korea. Among those expected on the U.S. side are national security adviser John Bolton, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer and Vice President Mike Pence.
On North Korea, Abe is determined to set guardrails for Trump in his talks with Kim. In visits to Washington over the past several weeks, Japanese government officials have emphasized that the United States must maintain tough economic sanctions on the North and not reward Pyongyang merely for its willingness to talk.
Japanese officials are intent on ensuring that Trump pushes to reduce the threat posed by the North’s short- and medium-range missiles, in addition to its nuclear arsenal and intercontinental ballistic missiles. And Abe also will emphasize human rights, including the unresolved abductions of at least 13 Japanese by North Korean agents in the 1970s and ’80s.