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Despite successful Japan-U.S. summit, bilateral ties not yet rock solid under Trump

PALM BEACH, Florida -- Japan has deemed the Feb. 10 summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington a success, as the two nations confirmed the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance and the United States did not make specific demands regarding economic cooperation. Yet some Japanese officials are warning that the reason Washington has agreed in most parts with Tokyo on security issues is that the United States is preparing to demand that Japan make compromises in bilateral trade and financial policies.

Prime Minister Abe spent a significant portion of his first meeting with Trump since the president was sworn in explaining, with data, how Japanese companies, including automakers, have built plants across the United States to manufacture products domestically and have helped create jobs. The Japanese government had been especially wary about Trump making specific demands in connection with the auto industry, but the president did not present any counterarguments to Abe's explanations.

According to sources present at the meeting, Abe led the conversation while Trump remained mostly a listener. Trump only made a few comments to show that he agreed with Abe. While the president appeared to be a little nervous at their joint news conference, a source said he seemed relaxed during the meeting.

At the same time, Japan did not know how the U.S. would approach the summit meeting until the very last minute, and it was only right before the meeting that the text of the joint statement was finalized. Officials in Washington had told Tokyo prior to the meeting that they did not know if they would be able to get the president's approval on the joint statement. In other words, Abe and his aides arrived in Washington not knowing what to expect from President Trump.

It turned out, however, that the statement included a passage that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty, which requires the United States to defend Japan in case of an armed attack on the country, applies to the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, which are also claimed by China.

The statement also referred to the importance of deepening Japan-U.S. trade and investment relations and of their "continued efforts in promoting trade, economic growth, and high standards throughout the Asia-Pacific region," which is essentially the spirit of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that President Trump announced the U.S. would pull out of.

The United States requested that the statement touch on the Islamic State militant group, but the subject was not included after Japan expressed reservations that it is unfit for a Japan-U.S.-related document. Prime Minister Abe reportedly told his aides that the summit went better than he had expected.

Trump welcomed Abe to the White House literally with open arms, and the two leaders hugged to kick off the summit in a very friendly mood. During a dinner meeting in Florida, Trump expressed his hope of building a relationship of mutual trust with Abe, saying that they could become the best partners if they worked together.

While the Abe-Trump relationship seemed to be off to a good start, the joint press conference underscored their differences over China. Prime Minister Abe repeatedly made remarks apparently with China in mind, saying that economic interventions by state enterprises backed by state capital are unacceptable -- in a bid to emphasize a picture of "the Japan-U.S. alliance versus China." President Trump, however, did not express his agreement with Abe on China, but instead told reporters that he expects to build a good relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping after they asked questions about his phone call with the Chinese president the day before the Japan-U.S. summit meeting.

It is possible that Trump did not present clear demands to Abe over policies on bilateral trade and other topics during their first summit because the basic policy outlines of the Trump administration have not been set. The Japanese government, meanwhile, plans to put pressure on the Trump administration about the bilateral relationship through Japan's economic and security cooperation with the United States.

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