TOKYO — When Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with President-elect Donald Trump in New York on Thursday, much will be at stake — for both sides.
Abe is likely to try to salvage at least part of a major trade deal, secure a commitment to Japan’s continued defense and establish a working relationship with the next U.S. leader who has a history of bashing Japan and campaigned on a platform of “America First.”
The meeting will be Trump’s first with a foreign leader since his election victory last week. He has yet to announce his foreign policy team, and people overseas — particularly in Asia, where China has mounted a challenge to U.S. power and influence — will look for assurances that the United States will remain engaged.
“It’s still too soon to know what effect Trump will have on East Asia, or Japan in particular, until we know more about his specific policies and appointments,” said Sean King, an East Asia specialist with the Park Securities consulting firm.
“Abe can underscore our two countries’ shared values and stress how the U.S.-Japan alliance helps keep open markets, energy routes and world shipping lanes ... and convey to the president-elect how much we could both lose if things ever went awry,” he said.
Few countries were as shocked by Trump’s election as Japan, a longtime U.S. treaty ally and major trading partner. Abe dispatched a senior adviser to meet with Trump representatives Monday and reworked travel plans to meet with Trump this week on his way to an economic conference in Peru.
During the fractious campaign, Trump promised to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade deal that is key to Abe’s economic plans. The pact, known as TPP, excludes China.
Although TPP cannot go into effect without U.S. support, Abe has continued to push for ratification in Japan’s parliament and is likely to warn Trump that rejecting the trade deal could push U.S. partners in Asia toward a separate trade deal, known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, that includes China.
“There’s no doubt that there would be a pivot to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership if the TPP doesn’t go forward,” Abe told Diet members last week.
Trump questioned whether Tokyo pays enough support for the 50,000 U.S. troops based in Japan. The Defense Department has sent additional troops and its newest and most advanced aircraft, warships and weaponry to the Asia-Pacific in recent years as part of the Obama administration’s “re-balance” to the region.
Tokyo spends about $1.8 billion a year to help defray the costs of U.S. troops based in Japan. Trump said during the campaign that’s not enough and suggested he might draw down U.S. forces if Japan doesn’t spend more.
The Asia Foundation, based in Washington, warned in a report this week that drawing down U.S. forces could trigger an arms race in the region and might even prompt Japan and South Korea to build their own nuclear weapons.
In March, The New York Times reported that Trump said he would be open to Japan and South Korea developing nuclear weapons — a reversal of decades of U.S. efforts to restrict the spread of nuclear arms. Sunday, Trump tweeted that he had never said that.
Trump hasn't filled key foreign policy posts such as secretary of State or Defense. Trump has relied for defense guidance in part on former Defense Intelligence Agency director Mike Flynn, a retired lieutenant general who is largely unknown outside the Washington defense community. Although Flynn visited Tokyo in October and met privately with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, he did not meet with Abe.
Not to worry, said Grant Newsham, senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo.
“Japan will do well not to take candidate Trump literally,” Newsham said. “Mr. Trump has some decent advisers who'll educate him on Japan and its importance. He's not the first candidate who has some homework to do about foreign affairs.”