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During Trump visit, Abe aims to reinforce ties and smooth trade strains

Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe standing side by side
President Trump with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Yokosuka, Japan. Photo: Athit Perawongmetha - Pool/Getty Images

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe designed an elaborate visit for President Trump, complete with golf, a sumo championship, warship tours and a meeting with the new emperor and empress. But the pageantry couldn’t paper over every crack between the two leaders.

The big picture: Discussions of bilateral trade and North Korea’s missile program left Abe struggling to accommodate Trump. Yet he knows how much hinges on their alliance and will do all he can to ensure Japan and the U.S. remain steady partners.

Details: After Trump railed against the trade deficit and the “advantage” given to Japanese firms by previous U.S. administrations, Abe countered with details of Japan’s investments over the past 2 years in the U.S. market and its creation of 45,000 new American jobs.

  • Flashback: Last September, Abe agreed to begin talks for a Trade Agreement in Goods, under which Japan would offer greater market access for U.S. agricultural products while the U.S. would continue to welcome imports of Japanese autos and auto parts. (Both issues had been part of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump abandoned early in his presidency.)
  • Reality check: Trump's priorities notwithstanding, Japan’s manufacturers and government doubt a new bilateral deal would do much to shift the trade deficit.

Meanwhile, Abe also confronted dissembling on Kim Jong-un’s recent missile tests, which Trump dismissed as acts of "a man who wants to get attention" even after national security adviser John Bolton had called them a violation of UN sanctions.

  • In response, Abe reiterated his desire to meet directly with Kim, with missiles and abductions at the top of his agenda.

What to watch: At the end of June, Abe will play host to a more complex array of state leaders at the G20 Summit in Osaka. Trump will return, alongside Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

  • Though most eyes will be on Xi and Trump, Abe did propose mediating U.S.-Iran talks, an offer Trump publicly welcomed.

The bottom line: Abe’s skill at maneuvering these difficult foreign relations will likely help his party at the polls this summer. A less proven leader could be harder to entrust with Japan's interests in the current climate, especially its prized U.S. alliance.

Sheila A. Smith is senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.