Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, rattled by Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric that cast doubt on longstanding U.S. alliances, meets the American president-elect on Thursday for talks whose details were arranged only at the last minute.
A day before the afternoon meeting in New York, basic logistics such as the time, the place, and who would be in the room were still up in the air, causing significant anxiety for Japanese officials who are already nervous about the future strength of a alliance that is core to Tokyo’s diplomacy and security.
Trump official Kellyanne Conway said on Thursday morning that Abe would meet Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence at Trump Tower in Manhattan at 5 p.m. ET (2200 GMT).
Abe and other Asian leaders were alarmed at Trump’s pledge during his election campaign to make allies pay more for help from U.S. forces, his suggestion that Japan should acquire its own nuclear weapons, and his staunch opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal.
The meeting will be the first face-to-face foray into international diplomacy for the Republican Trump, a brash outsider who has never held public office and who won a surprise victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton in last week’s election.
Conway sought to convey a sense of an informal first encounter with Abe, saying that the meeting would be “less formal” out of deference to President Barack Obama, who does not hand over to Trump until Jan. 20.
“We are very sensitive to the fact that President Obama is still in office for the next two months, and we won’t be making diplomatic agreements today,” Conway told reporters.
“Any deeper conversations about policy and the relationship between Japan and the United States will have to wait until after the inauguration,” she told CBS.
Nevertheless, the last-minute arrangements were unsettling for the Japanese. Abe is a political blue blood and veteran lawmaker who worked closely with Obama, a Democrat, on the 12-nation TPP trade pact, which was part of Obama’s push to counter the rising strength of China and a pillar of Abe’s economic reforms.
Trump fanned worries in Tokyo and beyond with his campaign comments on the possibility of Japan acquiring nuclear arms and demands that allies pay more for the upkeep of U.S. forces on their soil or face their possible withdrawal.
A Trump adviser who spoke on condition of anonymity said earlier this week he expected the president-elect to reaffirm “the American commitment to being in the Pacific long term” and that while the question of financial support for U.S. troops based in Japan might come up at the meeting with Abe, it was unlikely to be a focus.
ABE TO STRESS ALLIANCE
Abe adviser Katsuyuki Kawai told Reuters he had spoken to several Trump advisers and lawmakers since arriving in Washington on Monday to prepare the meeting and had been told “we don’t have to take each word that Mr. Trump said publicly literally”.
“Prime Minister Abe will definitely talk about the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance and that alliance is not only for Japan and the United States, but also for the entire Indo-Pacific region as well as world politics,” he said.
Japan agreed last December to boost spending for U.S. forces in Japan by 1.4 percent for the next five years, at an average of 189.3 billion yen ($1.74 billion) per year. Defense Minister Tomomi Inada has said Tokyo is paying enough.
Abe has boosted Japan’s overall defense spending since taking office in 2012, while stretching the limits of its pacifist post-war constitution to allow the military to take a bigger global role. Defense spending still stands at just over 1 percent of GDP compared with more than 3 percent in the United States.
Some of Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggested an image of Japan forged in the 1980s, when Tokyo was seen by many in the United States as a threat to jobs and a free-rider on defense.
The Trump adviser who spoke earlier in the week stressed a more positive view.
“Frankly, the prime minister has been more assertive and forthright in trying to make those changes to Japan’s global posture,” he said. “I think he’s going to get a very receptive audience there.”
Some diplomats say that until Trump makes key appointments, it will be hard to assess his policies on foreign relations issues ranging from overseas deployments of U.S. troops, China’s maritime aggressiveness in Asia and the nuclear threat posed by North Korea.
(Additional reporting by Linda Sieg, Nobuhiro Kubo and William Mallard in Tokyo; David Brunnstrom, Doina Chiacu, Matt Spetalnick and Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Michael Perry and Frances Kerry)