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Abe hopes to use Trump's visit to show firm alliance, keep China, N. Korea in check

U.S. President Donald Trump (L) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, along with other Group of 20 leaders, gather for a group photo in Buenos Aires on Nov. 30, 2018, during the opening day of their two-day summit. (Kyodo)

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intends to demonstrate the firm Japan-U.S. alliance to the world through the upcoming visit of U.S. President Donald Trump here as the first state guest in the Reiwa era and forge a strong position in dealing with China and North Korea.

However, it remains to be seen whether the prime minister can fend off pressure from Trump to resolve a bilateral trade dispute and other outstanding issues between the two countries.

Trump will stay in Japan from May 25 to 28. The president will play golf with the prime minister and watch sumo bouts before holding summit talks on May 27.

"I'd like to try to come up with good ideas to please Mr. Trump," Abe told a study session between the Foreign Ministry and the National Security Secretariat sometime around autumn 2018. At the time, the government's efforts to invite President Trump to Japan as a state guest got into full gear. It had earlier been decided that Prime Minister Abe would invite Trump to visit Japan during a summit meeting in Argentina in late November that year.

However, a Foreign Ministry official told the study meeting, "We'll surprise Mr. Trump," urging all attendees not to reveal the invitation plan.

"Mr. Trump will probably be glad if he's invited as a state guest who is supposed to meet with His Majesty the Emperor and attend events at the Imperial Palace," the prime minister was quoted as telling his close aides.

The prime minister is eager to maintain the close bilateral alliance while Trump apparently attaches less importance to U.S. allies, as is shown by the fact that the president is demanding that countries hosting U.S. forces, such as Japan and Germany, largely increase their financial burden of the troops' presence in these countries. Inviting Trump to watch sumo bouts "was an idea proposed by the prime minister," said an individual linked to the prime minister's office.

Japan's first state guest in the previous Heisei era (1989-2019) was then Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Since the turn of the era from Showa to Heisei occurred with the demise of Emperor Hirohito, posthumously named Emperor Showa, a senior Foreign Ministry official admitted that the government "had no leeway to select which countries to invite."

As the latest Imperial succession took place with the abdication of then Emperor Akihito, the government had ample time to consider who Japan would invite to visit the country as the first state guest in the new Reiwa era.

"We've been able to take time to consider the matter since around summer last year. It was a natural course of events to prioritize Japan's ally," said the official.

Prime Minister Abe, who is in his third three-year consecutive term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), is aiming to secure stable relations with China and settle the abduction of Japanese nationals by North Korea as well as the territorial dispute with Russia under the slogan, "Total settlement of postwar diplomacy." Japan needs assistance from the United States in settling these difficult issues.

In particular, Japan is making full use of U.S. influence in pressuring North Korea to make progress in the abduction issue. Prime Minister Abe has asked President Trump for cooperation in resolving the abduction issue whenever they have met.

These efforts bore some fruit at U.S.-North Korea summit talks in February this year. Trump told North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Japan was prepared to provide financial assistance on condition that the abduction issue be settled, according to those familiar with Japan-U.S. diplomacy.

Trump then suggested that Kim hold talks with Prime Minister Abe. It was the second time that day that Trump had raised the abduction issue. Kim, who was surprised on the first occasion and abruptly changed the topic, was forced to say on the second occasion that he was "prepared to have dialogue with the prime minister sooner or later."

Following the move, Prime Minister Abe intensified his efforts to encourage Kim to meet him. On May 6, Abe said he was ready to unconditionally meet with Kim.

Concerns have been raised within the LDP that the abduction issue could be left behind if the prime minister were to meet with Kim without attaching any preconditions. However, a person close to the prime minister's office has pointed out that Japan should not waste such a chance. "It's a good opportunity now since the U.S. president enthusiastically proposed such a meeting. It's impossible that the issue will be left behind," said the individual.

"We'd like to reconfirm the firm Japan-U.S. alliance and demonstrate it to the world," Prime Minister Abe told an LDP executive meeting as he emphasized the significance of Trump's upcoming visit to Japan.

Summit meetings between Abe and Trump will be held for three consecutive months -- in Washington in April, during the upcoming Tokyo visit and one to be held on the sidelines of the G-20 summit meeting in Osaka in June.

Prime Minister Abe's policy of prioritizing the Japan-U.S. alliance remains unchanged even though critics have warned that it is risky for the prime minister to maintain close relations with Trump, who has been pursuing an "America First" policy.

(Japanese original by Yoshitaka Koyama and Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department, and Kota Takamoto, North America General Bureau)

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