From Feb 10-13, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid an official visit to the United States. He was the second foreign leader President Trump met at the White House, following British Prime Minister Theresa May. The United States and Japan have conveyed the policy information respectively to the outside world through this meeting.
For Japan, it was unknown what adjustment the Trump administration will make on the US Asia-Pacific strategy, but clearly it was not in favor of Japan when the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP). The more critical issue was whether or not the Trump administration would weaken the security guarantee for Japan. Therefore, the first and foremost mission for Abe was to get the commitment from Trump that the United States would continue to fulfill its treaty obligations to Japan. In the talks, Trump spoke highly of the importance of the US-Japan alliance, saying, “The U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific region.” He pointed out that “We will work together to promote our shared interests, of which we have many in the region, including freedom from navigation and of navigation, and defending against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat, both of which I consider a very, very high priority.” Trump also confirmed that U.S.-Japan Security Pact Article 5 would be applied to the Senkaku Islands (known and claimed as the Diaoyu Islands by China), saying “We are committed to the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control, and to further strengthening our very crucial alliance.” All of these points are clearly set out in the US-Japan Joint Statement. For instance, the statement claimed “The U.S. commitment to defend Japan through the full range of U.S. military capabilities, both nuclear and conventional, is unwavering”, “The two leaders affirmed that Article V of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security covers the Senkaku Islands.” Nevertheless, the comments from Japanese media remained vigilant in the future of US-Japan security cooperation. It was partly due to the uncertainty of Trump’s policy and his ruling style, but more importantly, Japan’s strong sense of insecurity and lack of self-confidence.
Moreover, Abe also hoped to coordinate and consult with his counterpart on the issues like Japan-US trade, the yen exchange rate. Trump expressed a lot of dissatisfaction regarding the US-Japan trade imbalance the (US trade deficit with Japan was about $68.94 billion in 2016) and the deliberate attempts by Tokyo to devalue the yen. Through this visit, Abe reassured Trump that Japan was an impetus for US economic development, rather than resistance. At a press conference with Trump, Abe said Japan would be able to contribute to President Trump’s growth strategy. However, the differences between the United States and Japan on economic and trade issues are still there. For example, Abe stressed that the United States and Japan should build a fair trade relationship, and Trump stressed that US-Japan economic and trade relations should be “free, fair and reciprocal”. Perhaps in the bilateral relations, the friction may focus primarily on economic and trade areas.
Trump hoped to state the US position in dealing with the alliance through Abe’s visit, that is, the United States will continue to comply with its commitment, but the allies need to bear their responsibility, especially financially. During US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’s trip to Japan in early February, he said at a press conference with Japanese counterpart Tomomi Inada that “Japan has been a model of cost sharing, of burden sharing... we can point to our Japanese-American cost-sharing approach as an example for other nations to follow.” It meant other allies should operate like Japan in this regard. This was also implied in the Abe-Trump meeting, after which Trump said he was willing to take the opportunity to thank the people of Japan for hosting US armed forces.
In addition, Trump intended to prove that he was a flexible and predictable leader. In fact, a recent series of diplomatic moves by the Trump administration have tried to send that message, such as Mattis’s visit to South Korea and Japan, and Trump’s writing a letter to and having a phone conversation with China’s President Xi Jinping, when Trump said he “looks forward to working with President Xi to develop a constructive relationship that benefits both the United States and China” and agreed to honor the “one China” policy. These facts showed that the Trump’s Asia-Pacific policy is gradually clarifying: The United States would attach importance to the Asia-Pacific region, to its alliances and is willing to deepen the relationship with the region’s major countries.
It is also noteworthy that, during the Trump-Abe meeting, the two sides almost did not mention common values, which was a big difference from the previous US-Japanese summits. It seems that Abe is keen to promote so-called “values” diplomacy, but Trump has no interest on this.