U.S. President Donald Trump has arrived in Japan for a four-day state visit heavy on ceremony and sports, although a senior White House official promises “there’ll be some substantive things to announce.”
A focus on photo opportunities rather than deal-making may be intentional on the part of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has forged a close relationship with Trump. The two have met or spoken more than 40 times, which is “absolutely unprecedented,” according to the White House.
Keio University Professor Tomohiko Taniguchi, the prime minister’s primary foreign policy speechwriter, envisions that apart from the visit’s ceremonial aspects, there will be little of substance. But Taniguchi points out Abe is the only foreign leader with whom “Trump can spend hours and hours speaking without prepared talking points, which in itself bears strategic value for Japanese diplomacy.”
Asked by VOA if the trip would result in any deliverables on trade and defense cooperation, a senior U.S. official pointing to a scheduled Monday Trump-Abe news conference replied, “they’ll have some very interesting announcements concerning the range of the relationship.”
Speaking to a group of several dozen top Japanese business leaders shortly after landing in Tokyo, Trump hailed the “best relationship now with Japan than we’ve ever had.” He expressed hope for a bilateral trade agreement than would be “a little more fair” to the United States than the existing situation with bilateral commerce in which Japan has enjoyed a substantial surplus.”
The president is to attend a banquet with the new emperor, golf with the prime minister and view the ancient sport of sumo — awarding the “Trump Cup” to a champion wrestler. The cup is about 137 centimeters tall, according to a senior White House official, and “weighs 27 to 32 kilograms.
One goal of Abe’s during their time together in Tokyo is to ensure Trump is committed to next month’s Group of 20 leaders summit Japan will host in Osaka.
“The meeting will test Japan’s ability to act as a global statesman and champion the need for multilateralism,” says Shihoko Goto, the Wilson Center’s deputy director for geoeconomics and senior associate for Northeast Asia. “Making sure the United States is fully engaged in the G-20 summit will certainly be a key factor for Japan to achieve that goal.”
Abe also is anxious to get Trump’s commitment not to skip this year’s Group of Seven summit in France.
“It’s critical for Japan’s survival that the U.S. uphold the international institutions built after the war,” says Michael Green, the Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Abe hopes to demonstrate “nobody works better with this president or the United States than Japan,” Green adds. “That’s an important message for Asia, which has seen mixed signals out of Washington over the last decade about whether China or Japan would be the most important partner for the U.S.”
Both leaders also desire an economic pact following the U.S. withdrawal from the multinational Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
“Japan’s priority is to have a bilateral trade deal with the United States that would not impede its exports,” Goto, of the Wilson Center, tells VOA. “In addition, Japanese businesses are looking for stability in trade rules, and certainly stability in U.S.-China relations that would allow them to make investment decisions in the longer term.”
Abe will have ample opportunity to lobby Trump about the global world order and trade while they golf and then sit side by side close to the sumo ring prior to their formal summit on Monday.
No immediate breakthrough in the trade arena is foreseen by analysts.
“Exactly how and when agriculture and autos is going to be addressed is still very much up for debate,” says Matthew Goodman, senior adviser for Asian economics at CSIS.
There is anxiety among Japanese officials that Trump could lash out at his hosts and reinforce his tough stance on trade.
“My gut is that he will be, in this context, on his best behavior because of the pomp and circumstance of this visit and the golf and all the rest of it,” predicts Goodman, a former White House and National Security Council staffer.
Trump on Monday also meets with Emperor Naruhito and attends a state banquet.
The U.S. president is Japan’s first formal guest of the Reiwa era, which began May 1 with the new monarch ascending to the Chrysanthemum Throne, succeeding his elderly father, Akihito, who abdicated.
Yokosuka naval base
Plans are being made for Trump and Abe on Tuesday to inspect a Japanese helicopter carrier at the Yokosuka naval base, putting the final focus for the president’s visit on the close military relationship between the two countries, which were on opposing sides during World War II.
The 250-meter-long Izumo-class carrier named the Kaga is categorized as a helicopter carrier but could be modified to launch the short take-off and landing version of the F-35B supersonic stealth fighter jet, according to a Japanese defense source.
“The Japanese have not decided officially yet whether they’ll procure the F-35B, but there’s an awful lot of interest. I’m sure Donald Trump would like to sell them,” Green tells VOA. “The impression the Abe government had was that the Obama administration was much more ambivalent about all this stuff.”
Trump’s enthusiasm signals “to the region and to the Japanese public, and the American public, that the U.S. is fully supportive of what Abe is trying to do on security,” adds Green, a former National Security Council staffer.
At Yokosuka, Trump also is scheduled to address U.S. military personnel aboard a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship while it’s still Memorial Day back home, specifically noting the “global nature on the partnership between Japan and the United States,” according to a senior White House official.