This week, Shinzo Abe became the first foreign head of state to meet in-person with Donald Trump.
Japan’s Prime Minister had good reason to call in on the US President-elect in haste as he sought to clarify statements made by Trump during the election campaign and affirm trust in the Japan-US alliance.
Ahead of his trip, Abe told reporters he was ‘very honoured to see the President-elect ahead of other world leaders’. He stressed that ‘The Japan-US alliance is the axis of Japan's diplomacy and security. The alliance becomes alive only when there is trust between us. I would like to build such a trust with Mr Trump’.
The pair came together for a 90-minute meeting in New York. While news organisations were denied access to the discussion, photographs released by the Japanese government reveal an intimate setting in the ornate Trump Tower, which was also attended by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband.
As Trump has yet to assume the presidency, the meeting was unofficial with neither side disclosing specific talking points. That said, there is little doubt that Japan’s security in the East Asia region was a key issue up for discussion. Like many other Asian states, Japan is keen to seek reassurance for statements made by Trump on the campaign trail and decipher the extent to which rhetoric espoused by Trump will translate into US foreign policy.
In the lead-up to the elections, Trump fanned flames in Japan and South Korea when he suggested that both states should shoulder a larger share of the financial cost of basing US military forces in the region. Trump’s depiction of Japan and South Korea as security ‘free riders’ was a blow for two of the US’ closest allies, as was his statement that the US may consider withdrawing troops.
Trump’s approach to key US alliances has not always been consistent, which has strained trust with Japan and South Korea in particular. As the Lowy Institute has highlighted, Australia escaped criticism from Trump as a security ‘free rider’ despite the fact that ‘Canberra commits a smaller percentage of national wealth to defense than Seoul, and drove a harder bargain than Tokyo on the costs of hosting US Marines’.
Trump also argued that Japan and South Korea should take greater responsibility for ensuring their own security from the threat posed by North Korea. In April, he told CNN ‘Japan is better if it protects itself against this maniac of North Korea’, and threatened to make Japan and South Korea pay for US military protection.
Further controversy arose when Trump stated that Japan and South Korea might better protect themselves by developing their own nuclear arsenals. While this rhetoric goes against the mainstream in both countries, it strikes a particular chord in Japan – a country that has maintained a pacifist constitution since the end of the Second World War and is the only state against which nuclear weapons have been used.
Following the talk, Abe portrayed the meeting as a ‘very candid discussion’ that left him confident that the US and Japan would maintain a ‘relationship of trust’ under a Trump presidency. Trump also focused on relationship building, posting on Facebook, ‘It was a great pleasure to have Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stop by my home and begin a great friendship’.
The extent to which friendship underpins the Japan-US alliance under a Trump administration will be a crucial dynamic for the security balance in East Asia. The fact that a dialogue has already been opened between Abe and Trump stands testament to the significance of this relationship going forward.
Nicole Tooby is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.