ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE — U.S. President Donald Trump is heading to 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.”
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.
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.