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In Talks With Trump, Japan's Shinzo Abe Will Seek To Smooth Economic Tensions

Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe arrives to speak to reporters following a meeting with Donald Trump in November.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe arrives to speak to reporters following a meeting with Donald Trump in November.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrives Thursday in Washington for talks on Friday with Donald Trump, an effort by this longtime Asian ally to get a better read on the way forward with the unpredictable new U.S. president.

The trip comes just a week after the Trump administration made its first appearance overseas.U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis traveled to South Korea and Japan to reassure them of the security alliance between the U.S. and the Pacific countries.

"We had very candid, frank, but very warm discussions," Mattis said. He struck a friendly tone with leaders in Japan and South Korea and his Japan-friendly positions diverged from Trump's comments during the campaign, when he criticized the amount Tokyo pays for hosting some 50,000 U.S. troops. "Why don't they pay 100 percent?" Trump said last August.

"Japan has been a model of cost-sharing, of burden sharing," Mattis said.

He also played down the possibility of any U.S. military action over contested islands in the East and South China seas, saying issues should be "left up to the diplomats."

"I don't see any reason right now to think we cannot maintain stability in the Asia-Pacific region, especially with China," Mattis said.

While Mattis was making his alliance-affirming trip, his boss, President Trump, was criticizing Japan in the press and on Twitter. In an interview, Trump accused Japan of manipulating its currency to help its exports, and took aim at Japanese carmaker Toyota for planning to build a plant in Mexico.

"There's always this thing in the Trump team of the good cop and the bad cop. Mattis is the good cop and Trump can be the bad cop, so maybe it's all for theater. Who knows?" says Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Tokyo's Sophia University. "Trump tweets something and the whole conditions are going to change. So we are getting into a situation that is really not accountable. Trump is not held accountable to anybody in any significant way at the moment."

Japan denies deliberately devaluing its currency, the yen. Abe said ahead of his Washington trip that he would explain Japan's monetary policy in this week's talks. It's part of a summit that's expected to be heavy on trade issues.

"What Abe has to impress [on] President Trump is basically money, basically jobs. We in Japan will invest X amount of money in the U.S. as long as you have our back in Asia. You have our back against North Korea, you have our back against China," says William Pesek, the Tokyo-based editor of Barron's Asia.

To get the security Japan wants, Abe will present a package of ideas for investing as much as $150 billion into U.S. infrastructure, including high-speed rail projects. President Trump made improving infrastructure a key campaign pledge.

"We will build the next generation of roads, bridges, railways, tunnels, seaports and airports. That, believe me, folks, is what our country deserves," Trump said in a speech last August

But some of Abe's ideas are expected to be projects that are a tough sell in the U.S. Trump may want to see next-generation rail, but buyers in American states and cities are skeptical.

"Americans have never been all that interested in high-speed rail," Pesek says. "This is a repackaging of what we've seen before. There's nothing new or innovative here. What's different is you have a very transactional government now in the U.S. You have a transactional [Japanese] prime minister, and it will be interesting to see the extent to which they can strike deals."

The deal-making will be conducted in a traditional setting — at the White House — but will move on to Trump's private golf resort in Palm Beach, Fla. That's where the two leaders are expected to continue their discussions over a round of golf.

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Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.