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Japan wary of U.S. stance toward China as Abe-Trump meeting unfolds

U.S. President Donald Trump held telephone talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Feb. 9 in an "extremely cordial" manner, according to the White House, just as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Washington for his first summit meeting with Trump.

The Japanese government is having a hard time figuring out the U.S. government's intentions behind the move, while Tokyo seeks to hail the forging of an amicable relationship between the United States and China.

During their meeting on Feb. 10, Abe and Trump reaffirmed that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty extends to the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which are also claimed by China. However, Tokyo may need to keep a close watch on how the Trump administration will face up to China.

At a press conference on Feb. 10, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga skirted around offering his thoughts on the Trump-Xi telephone talks, saying, "The government withholds from commenting on the talks as they were held between third countries."

A source close to the Japanese government, however, pointed out, "The telephone talks were apparently set to coincide with the Japan-U.S. summit meeting. The move suggests that the United States has shown consideration to China."

While the presence of anti-China hard-liners stands out within the Trump administration, such as White House National Trade Council head Peter Navarro, Trump himself has also taken advice from former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who attaches weight to U.S. relations with China. The source close to the Japanese government believes that Trump moved ahead with the telephone conference with Xi with the aim of striking a balance between the hard-line and moderate approaches toward China within his administration.

Abe seeks to demonstrate an "unwavering Japan-U.S. alliance" to both the domestic and international community through the bilateral summit meeting, symbolized by the reaffirmation of the Senkaku Islands by the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty. Even though that goal was achieved during the bilateral talks, the Trump government's policy toward China remains unclear.

"We are anxious to avoid a situation where U.S.-China relations improve suddenly and the two countries join hands over Japan's head," said a senior official with the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We wish the United States had waited until after Japan-China relations improved a little more before approaching China." The official expressed wariness over the possibility of Trump embarking on "deal diplomacy" and the U.S. and China rapidly improving ties.

Another Japanese government source said, "The Trump administration harbors both hard-line and reconciliatory stances toward China, and there's no knowing which direction the administration will take. That might become clear during the bilateral summit talks."

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