On Thursday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the first world leader to meet president-elect Donald Trump in person since his surprise victory earlier this month.
Before travelling to the U.S., Abe told reporters that he was “very honored” to be meeting Trump because the “Japan-US alliance is the axis of Japan’s diplomacy and security”, adding that he “would like to build such a trust with Mr Trump.”
So why is Abe the first world leader to be meeting Trump?
One of the main reasons for the meeting happening so soon after Trump’s election victory is pure coincidence.
Tomohiko Taniguchi, the Prime Minister’s special adviser, told CNN that Abe was already scheduled to travel from Japan to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru and would naturally have to stop in the U.S. for refuelling, so during their phone conversation on November 10, the pair agreed to a meeting in New York.
Another reason for Abe’s desire for an early meeting with Trump is due to the fact that he currently has no relationship with the president-elect.
According to a Nikkei Asian Review article published last week, Abe — like most world leaders — had been preparing for a Hillary Clinton victory. During a visit to the U.S. in September, Abe made time to meet the former secretary of state, but not the Republican candidate.
The U.S. is Japan’s most important ally, and is legally bound to help defend the country against attack. With the growing threat from North Korea and an increasingly aggressive China on its doorstep, this relationship is more important than ever to the Japanese.
Abe will be particularly looking for clarification about comments Trump made during the election campaign about withdrawing U.S. troops from Asia (there are 50,000 stationed in Japan alone) and cutting off ties with countries in the region.
“Japan is the closest US ally in Asia and he’ll want this to be reaffirmed,” Jeff Kingston, director of Asian studies at Temple University in Japan told CNN. “I think Abe understands that Trump is a brittle person who takes offense easily and he will want to set a positive tone. He didn’t have good chemistry with Obama.”
One of the suggestions made by Trump during the campaign was that countries like Japan (as well as Germany, South Korea and Saudi Arabia) should have nuclear weapons to thwart the threat from North Korea. “Japan is better if it protects itself against this maniac of North Korea,” Trump said in March.
Abe is likely to remind Trump that Japan has signed up to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty – any indication that Abe is thinking of moving away from that stance would not be a popular move with his electorate.
One of the most immediate results of Trump’s election was the acknowledgement that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) was in big trouble. Japan was among the countries which had enthusiastically signed up to the deal with Abe hoping it could spur renewed economic growth in the country.
With Obama giving up on trying to push TPP through before the end of his term in office, Abe will be hoping to convince Trump of its value, or if not, at least get him to discuss closer business and trade links with Japan specifically.
Things to avoid
One subject that probably won’t be discussed are the recent comments from a Trump surrogate about Japanese internment camps. During a Fox News interview, Carl Higbie mentioned the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II while discussing possible plans for a ‘Muslim registry.’ When confronted about his comments, Higbie defended his remarks, calling the internment camps ‘a precedent’ for any future plans. During the war, almost 120,000 people of Japanese descent were imprisoned in the U.S. President Reagan later apologized – paying compensation and calling the action “a great injustice.”