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Abe, Trump hold talks as trade, North Korea loom large

President Donald Trump meets with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Akasake Palace, on May 27, 2019, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S President Donald Trump held talks on Monday with trade and North Korea high on the agenda -- a meeting intended to underscore the strength of the long-standing bilateral alliance after they spent the previous day golfing and watching sumo.

    Abe is hosting Trump, on a four-day state visit seen largely as ceremonial rather than substantive, hoping to showcase their close personal relationship. The U.S. leader is being received as the first state guest of Japan's new Reiwa imperial era and his meeting Monday with Emperor Naruhito, who ascended the throne on May 1, and Empress Masako is one of the highlights.

    Behind the projection of a personal rapport are simmering bilateral tensions over trade, as negotiators have so far failed to close a wide gap and reach a deal as pursued by Trump, who told Japanese business leaders in Tokyo, including the president of Toyota Motor Corp., that he wants a fair and reciprocal relationship.

    Japanese and U.S. officials have downplayed the prospect of a major breakthrough at the summit -- the second of three planned over a three-month period.

    Trump tweeted Sunday that "great progress" has been made in trade negotiations but added, "Much will wait until after (Japan's) July elections where I anticipate big numbers!"

    Japan has secured some breathing space as the United States delayed higher duties on cars and auto parts for up to six months, though there is persisting concern that the Trump administration will take advantage of the threat of levies and import quotas to pressure Tokyo into making concessions.

    As American farmers have become less competitive due to free trade agreements such as a revised Trans-Pacific Partnership without the United States, Washington is urging Tokyo to cut tariffs on farm products such as beef, pork and wheat.

    Japan, for its part, has been calling for the removal of U.S. duties on imported industrial products.

    Besides the sensitive issue of trade, Abe and Trump will likely agree on the need to coordinate policy on North Korea and to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region in the face of China's growing clout.

    Abe appears to be hoping to get Trump's backing for pursuing his first-ever summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, given that the prime minister has expressed his readiness to meet him without preconditions.

    Abe has shifted from his previous stance that a guarantee of progress is necessary on the issue of Japanese nationals abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and 1980s. Trump, who raised the abduction issue in his high-profile summits with Kim, is scheduled to talk to family members of those abducted later Monday.

    Raising uncertainty over the Abe-Trump summit, however, is the view that Tokyo and Washington may not be on the same page after North Korea's recent series of missile launches triggered contrasting responses.

    Japan protested to North Korea over the May 9 launches of short-range ballistic missiles as contravening U.N. Security Council resolutions, while the United States downplayed their significance.

    Trump tweeted Sunday that North Korea fired off "some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me," contradicting his security adviser John Bolton's remark a day before that the missile tests violated U.N. Security Council resolutions.

    The situation in the Middle East will also likely be on the agenda amid an escalating U.S.-Iran standoff. Japanese government sources have said Abe is considering a visit to Iran to serve as an intermediary as Tokyo has built amicable ties with Tehran.

    Abe has held a number of phone conversations and face-to-face meetings with Trump to align their policies while trying to connect with the often unpredictable president by golfing and watching sumo. Trump plans to visit Japan again for a Group of 20 summit in Osaka on June 28 and 29.

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