President Donald Trump will land in Japan on Saturday for a series of high-level meetings, but White House officials and experts say to expect a trip heavy on pomp-and-circumstance and light on substance.
In a sign of how important the U.S.-Japanese relationship is to the Asian country, Trump will become the first foreign leader to meet its new emperor, Naruhito. He will also meet several times with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for discussions on a list of issues ranging from trade to North Korea.
A White House official set noticeably modest expectations for the Trump-Abe talks, saying the duo will likely make “some announcements” while not describing them as major developments.
That’s a relatively low bar, considering Trump’s constant praise of Abe and determination to portray his Japanese counterpart as a close, personal friend. Here are three things to watch when Trump departs on Friday, possibly after holding another mini-press conference on the White House’s South Lawn.
‘Pretty low expectations’
“I don’t think that the purpose of this trip is to focus on trade. It’s really to be state guests of their majesties,” he said of the new emperor and his wife. “And that’s really the heart of the visit. It’s a celebration of their new roles and this new era that’s been kicked off — the ‘Reiwa era’ — and a chance to celebrate the alliance.”
Matthew Goodman, who worked on Asian economic issues for the Obama White House, said “clearly trade is sort of back at the center of the relationship after a ... long period of some decades of other issues being more central.”
Even though it inevitably will be a top agenda item this weekend and early next week in Tokyo — Trump has talked about striking a one-on-one deal with Abe for some time — Goodman says “one should have pretty low expectations” for a deal to be announced by the time the U.S. leader heads home on Tuesday.
The same goes for either chief executive to “blow up” any potential pact, he added.
“I think they both understand that agriculture and automobiles are somehow going to be a part of any deal,” Goodman said. “But exactly how and when agriculture and autos is going to be addressed is still very much up for debate.”
One hurdle the two sides will have to eventually clear, and which makes a deal coming together quickly so highly unlikely, stems from Trump’s decision to remove the U.S. from a trade pact involving Japan and other Asian countries that was negotiated by the Obama administration.
“The problem on agriculture is that when the U.S. pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but Japan moved ahead … with getting that done with the other 11 members of the group, that meant that Japan started to liberalize its market access for beef and pork and other agricultural products for the Australians and the Canadians and then the EU, through the EU-Japan trade deal,” he said, noting that “U.S. exports were left at a disadvantaged position, with paying higher tariffs.”
The senior administration official was pointedly asked on a Wednesday briefing call if observers should expect Trump and Abe to appear at a planned joint press conference and announce a deal. The response steered reporters away from any such an expectation.
“You know, on trade, our trade and investment relations with Japan have, really, never been stronger,” the official said. “And the president intends to promote bilateral, free, and fair trade. It’s something he’s been doing consistently in his meetings with the Japanese.”
Abe was the first world leader to shower praise on Trump — including about the state of his golf game — standing alongside him during a joint press conference early in the U.S. leader’s term.
Abe, a veteran diplomat now that he’s in his seventh year as prime minister, had his government conduct a character study of Trump after he defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, experts say. That’s because he views the U.S.-Japan relationship as crucial — no matter who occupies the Oval Office.
“I often get asked, ‘Well, doesn’t he pay a huge price for this? And if he doesn’t, why not?” said Michael Green, who led Asian affairs for George W. Bush’s National Security Council.
“I think the short answer is actually: Abe doesn’t really pay too much of a political price,” Green said. “He gets some criticism from parts of the media, from his political opponents, but his support rate has been about 50 percent. … He’s holding quite strongly in the polls in spite of — and one may argue because of — his management of the mercurial and unpredictable American president.”
What Abe understands, Green says, is how central keeping Washington close is to his country’s most basic goal: survival. “Japan lives right next door to China and North Korea, [and] has very little room for friction with the United States,” he said.
There will be perhaps no better example of the extent to which Abe and his government are going to roll out the red carpet for Trump than the “Trump Cup,” a new trophy the American leader will award Sunday to the winner of the first Sumo wrestling tournament of the new imperial era.
“The sumo event is very much on,” the senior administration official said. “It’s a major sumo tournament. The president will have the opportunity to see some of the matches together with the prime minister.”
“This is a great introduction to Japanese culture for the president, but it’s also a clever way of connecting him with the Japanese people,” said Nicholas Szechenyi of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “And Prime Minister Abe will be there with him, and it’s a nice way to introduce the president in advance of a pretty busy diplomatic schedule.”
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