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The optics and rhetoric of President Trump’s state visit to Japan were aimed at showing two closest allies in history at the start of the reign of a new Japanese emperor. Trump is the first state guest to visit since Emperor Naruhito ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne on May 1. On Sunday, he and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shared a round of golf, attended a sumo match and hosted a barbecue dinner.
But on Monday, a joint press conference with the two leaders revealed that the two countries are struggling to manage their differences over a range of political issues, especially bilateral trade, North Korea and Iran.
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One of Japan’s main concerns is that the United States is threatening to tax Japanese car exports to the United States if a deal is not reached in six months. These exports are a mainstay of the Japanese economy, and Tokyo is baffled to learn that its main ally classifies Japan’s trade surplus as a security threat.
“When I talk about a security threat, I am talking about a record,” Trump said at Monday’s press conference at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo.
In its defense, Japan points out that it produces more cars in the United States than it exports there, and that investment has increased under the Trump administration, creating tens of thousands of jobs in the United States.
President Trump has acknowledged that Japan has reduced its trade surplus, intending to purchase more than 100 US F-35 fighter jets, more than any other ally.
Trump is expected to mark the purchase on Tuesday, when he plans to visit the port of Yokosuka, which is home to American and Japanese warships. The Japanese legislature has approved plans to convert helicopter carriers to accommodate F-35s, giving it its first aircraft carriers since World War II.
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Trump has suggested that any trade deal should wait until after Japan’s parliamentary elections in July. Washington has its hands full with an ongoing trade war with China, and Abe could lose votes if he makes big concessions to the United States ahead of the poll.
Analysts say Abe seeks to cement a two-thirds majority in the Japanese parliament to achieve his long-held goal of rewriting the postwar Japanese constitution drafted by the United States, which limits the role of the Emperor of Japan. Japan and its army.
“I think he sees this as an unfinished family business,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at the Japanese campus of Temple University in Tokyo. “This is something his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke had wanted to do. So I think he thinks it would end his political career.”
Nobusuke was Prime Minister of Japan from 1957 to 1960.
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Washington is still eager to secure a trade deal, as Japan has signed trade deals with major agricultural producers, including Australia and Canada, allowing their farmers and ranchers to take market share from their US competitors. The Trump administration criticized Japan’s move as hostile.
“What you are seeing is a US government that demands what it could have had, and unfortunately is unable to recognize it,” says Brad Glosserman, deputy director of the Center for Rule-making Strategies at the ‘Tama University in Tokyo.
Previously, the United States proposed and then negotiated a trade deal known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Glosserman points out, but Trump withdrew from it.
“I am not bound by anything anyone else signs, as far as the United States is concerned,” Trump said at Monday’s press conference. The TPP, he said, “would have destroyed our auto industry and many of our manufacturers.”
Trump reiterated his indifference to North Korea’s short-range missile testing this month, despite criticism of the launches by his own national security adviser, John Bolton. The tests are also worrying South Korea and Japan, both within striking range of the missiles. The same is true of some US military bases in these countries.
But Trump pointed to the lack of nuclear tests and long-range missiles as a sign of his diplomatic success with North Korea. “I’m very happy with the way it’s going, and smart people agree with me,” he said.
Abe is the only regional leader who has not met with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and therefore has less to offer the United States as a mediator.
This is not the case with Iran, with which Japan has long enjoyed friendly relations. Japan has also been heavily dependent on Iranian oil, but has had to reduce that dependence due to US sanctions. Prime Minister Abe plans to visit Iran next month, and at Monday’s briefing pledged to do whatever he can to mediate.
Japanese media reported that Tehran would like Tokyo to intervene on its behalf with the United States.
Japan supported the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, from which President Trump withdrew the United States.
“This is one of the few issues on which Japan is very clearly taking a position contrary to the US government. And generally, Abe is positioned rather well to position himself as a staunch ally” of the United States, explains Daniel Sneider, a Japanese expert. at Stanford University.
All of the political speeches on the second full day of Trump’s visit contrasted sharply with the first day, which focused on golf, sumo wrestling, burgers and steak. The schedule was clearly calculated to please Trump and underscore the closeness of the two leaders.
Trump and Abe “are good friends it seems, but that’s not the problem,” says Kunihiko Miyake, a former diplomat and now director of research at the Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.
“It’s not just for Mr. Trump,” he said, “it’s for the President of the United States.” And once the ceremonies are over, US and Japanese leaders must cooperate to address pressing strategic challenges, including the rise of Iran and China.