Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could face some tense moments when he meets with President Trump this month at Mar-a-Lago, reflecting rising fears back home that Tokyo has been left on the sidelines as the U.S., South Korea and Chinese pursue direct diplomacy with North Korea.
Administration officials late Monday confirmed the meeting with Mr. Abe at Mr. Trump’s “Winter White House” on April 17 and 18. They said the third face-to-face meeting of the two leaders since Mr. Trump’s election will focus on ways Washington and Tokyo can stay in lockstep in the “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign to force Pyongyang to roll back its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.
But the real reason Mr. Abe is coming, according to regional analysts, is to ensure Mr. Trump keeps Japan’s concerns high on his priorities list in his proposed summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, which the White House hopes will occur as early as next month.
Mr. Abe, a golfing partner of the president who was the first world leader to obtain a meeting with Mr. Trump after his surprise 2016 election, faces rising pressure back home to show that the personal relationship he has cultivated can pay off on issues such as security and trade.
“Shinzo Abe is coming to Mar-a-Lago to make sure he understands that the Americans will not abandon Japan in the course of any high-level negotiations with Pyongyang,” said Patrick Cronin, who heads the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Mr. Trump reportedly informed Mr. Abe that he had agreed to meet personally with Mr. Kim as a South Korean delegation was announcing the breakthrough to reporters on the White House driveway.
The sting is even sharper for Japan because Mr. Trump declined to give Tokyo a waiver from steel and aluminum tariffs that the U.S. administration announced last month, even as allies such as the European Union, Canada, Australia and South Korea were given reprieves.
Richard Armitage, a top State Department official in the George W. Bush administration, told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview Sunday that Mr. Trump and his foreign policy team must “think from South Korea’s and Japan’s point of view” as they get ready to meet with Mr. Kim.
“I would be ashamed of my president if he goes and gets a deal which helps U.S. security but doesn’t improve Japan’s,” Mr. Armitage said. “That’s not the right way to treat an ally, in my view.”
Mr. Cronin said Japan is wary that upcoming one-on-one meetings between Mr. Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and then Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump could lead to four-party talks involving the U.S., China, South Korea and North Korea, rather than the six-party format that also included Japan and Russia during previous diplomacy with Pyongyang.
More pointedly, he said, there is concern in Tokyo that Washington might rush into a negotiation that results in a deal curbing North Korea’s long-range ballistic missiles — which can reach the U.S. mainland — while failing to address other North Korean weapons such as the No Dong missile, which are capable of hitting Japan.
The broader fear is that Washington might be willing to cut a deal that “eases sanctions on North Korea before actually reducing the threat to Japan,” Mr. Cronin said.
Mr. Abe’s concerns were probably not eased by last week’s direct meeting between Mr. Kim and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Japan has historically had difficult relations with China and both North and South Korea, in part owing to historical grievances and territorial disputes dating back to World War II and before.
“With Xi being the first leader to meet with Kim, China has set the table and wants to maximize its leverage, perhaps even at the expense of Japan,” he said. “Abe was already worried about a Trump-Kim deal over the head of Japan’s interests, and now he has to worry about being sidelined by Beijing.
“All the surrounding powers want to burnish their leverage before the series of summit meetings.”
The Abe government, which once publicly backed Mr. Trump’s get-tough, “fire and fury” rhetoric targeting Pyongyang, has responded positively to the prospect of direct U.S.-North Korean talks.
However, some analysts have noted a behind-the-scenes scramble by officials in Tokyo to save face against the narrative that South Korea’s Mr. Moon, who has been pushing hardest for a diplomatic opening to Pyongyang, may have more influence with Mr. Trump.
As momentum toward direct presidential diplomacy began building last month, Jun Okumura, a political analyst at the Tokyo-based Meiji Institute for Global Affairs, observed that there “are those who say that we are seeing a diplomatic version of the ‘Japan passing’ phenomenon we had in the trade and business sphere a decade or more ago as the U.S. looked to China.”
“But who really cares?” Mr. Okumura told the South China Morning Post at the time. “What is important is that there is a strict quid pro quo between any easing of the sanctions and the rolling-back of the North’s nuclear weapons and missile programs.”
Mr. Abe is expected to push that line in his upcoming meeting with Mr. Trump, building on a personal rapport dating back to their first meeting at Trump Tower in November 2016, quickly followed by Mr. Abe’s stay at Mar-a-Lago — the first visit by a foreign leader to Mr. Trump’s Florida retreat.
At the time, there were fears that the relationship could sour over Mr. Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that the Obama administration had spent years courting Tokyo to join. Japan stayed in the talks and recently agreed to a modified 11-country Pacific Rim free trade accord without the U.S. that omitted many of Washington’s priorities in the deal.
In an ominous sign for Japan’s foreign policy agenda, that Mar-a-Lago visit in February 2017 is best remembered now for being disrupted when North Korea carried out a major missile test launch.
Mr. Trump’s unconventional foreign policy views — including his insistence that allies like Japan carry more of the financial burden for their defense — have at times vexed Tokyo. Mr. Trump shook the landscape on a visit to Japan in November when he told reporters that North Korea’s missiles could be neutralized because Mr. Abe “will shoot them out of the sky when he completes the purchase of lots of additional military equipment from the United States.”
Japan has been engaged in a long-running national debate over its pacifist constitution. Mr. Abe has been a leading proponent for a more aggressive buildup of Japan’s armed forces — a buildup that unnerves South Korea and China.
The White House said in a statement Monday that the upcoming Trump-Abe meeting will “reaffirm the United States-Japan alliance as a cornerstone of peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.”
“The two leaders will discuss the international campaign to maintain maximum pressure on North Korea in advance of President Trump’s planned meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un,” the statement said, adding that they also will “explore ways to expand fair and reciprocal trade and investment ties between the United States and Japan, two of the world’s wealthiest and most innovative economies.”