U.S. President Donald Trump hosts Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe beginning Tuesday for two days of talks the White House says it expects to "be very positive."
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One on Monday’s flight to Florida, White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the discussions between the two leaders are “going to be centered primarily on preparation for talks with North Korea, as well as a lot of trade discussion.”
Trump and Abe are no strangers. The Japanese prime minister is the foreign leader the U.S. president has met with and spoken to most often during his presidency.
“Obviously, the president has got a great relationship there,” said Sanders.
Trump and Abe share a pressing concern — North Korea, which has ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs in defiance of international sanctions.
With an unprecedented summit being planned between Trump and Kim Jong Un, the Japanese leader wants face time with the U.S. president before that critical meeting.
Abe said before taking his flight to the United States he wants to confirm the U.S. stance on applying pressure on North Korea to get it to irreversibly give up its missiles and nuclear weapons.
Analysts say Abe hopes to convince Trump if he does meet with Kim, he does not make agreements with the North Korea leader that could weaken the security of Japan, which is under America’s nuclear umbrella and hosts thousands of U.S. military personnel.
“I don’t think that President Trump will ignore Japan’s security interests in the summit with Prime Minister Abe. In the past, though Trump has talked tough about allies on security issues like alliance cost-sharing, policy hasn’t followed the rhetoric,” said Pamela Kennedy, a research associate on East Asia at the Stimson Center.
Last month’s sudden announcement, however, that Trump was willing to meet Kim was a surprise, especially for Abe.
U.S. officials, however, deny reports that the Japanese leader has become frustrated with Trump’s sudden policy shifts and that the bilateral relationship needs mending.
"I don't think it would be accurate to describe the need for repair work," a senior administration official said last Friday "Overall, the [U.S.-Japan] relationship has never been better."
Analysts see the two days of talks as an important opportunity for the Japanese leader to inform Trump directly of Japan’s concerns and priorities before he sits down with Kim.
One of Abe’s priorities is a substantial domestic political issue — North Korea’s abduction of Japanese citizens over a period of decades.
“He will certainly try to gain Trump’s agreement to address the issue with Kim,” Kennedy told VOA. “But he also must convince Trump that the short and intermediate range missiles are a critical security concern for Japan, and that the U.S., as Japan’s ally, should make this a part of its approach to the North Korea talks.”
Trump and Abe — both of whom are being buffeted by domestic scandals — will also talk trade – including America’s possible return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a multinational trade pact from which the U.S. president pulled out shortly after taking office.
“He wants to make sure we have good trade deals, and we'll see what that looks like,” replied Sanders to a reporter’s question on whether Trump would discuss with Abe rejoining TPP.
Japan and the United States were the two leading nations in the 12-nation pact that took years to negotiate.
There is also disappointment in Japan that despite the close relationship between Trump and Abe, the U.S. government has not exempted Tokyo for tariffs placed on steel and aluminum imports.
Japanese officials want to avoid having Trump try to link any trade negotiations to security matters, a separation strictly maintained during decades of post-World War II diplomacy between the former enemies. But Trump has frequently stated that military allies, such as Japan and South Korea, should pay more for American forces defending them.