WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump thanked Japan’s prime minister Friday for hosting U.S. military bases and described the U.S.-Japanese alliance as critical in the Pacific at a time of growing concern over North Korea’s nuclear threat.
“The U.S.-Japan alliance is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific region,” Trump told reporters at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Trump, who spoke during the election campaign of making Japan and South Korea pay more for their own defense, thanked the Japanese for “hosting our armed forces” and said the missile and nuclear threat from North Korea is a “high priority” for the United States.
The warm public atmosphere between the two leaders amounted to a political coup for Abe, a nationalist adept at forging relationships with strongmen leaders. Abe was the only world leader to meet the Republican before his inauguration and is the second to do so since the new president took office.
Trump and Abe held talks in the Oval Office, followed by a joint news conference and a working lunch. The two leaders were to depart on Air Force One on Friday afternoon for a trip to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida and play golf Saturday.
Other leaders of America’s closest neighbors and allies, such as Mexico, Britain and Australia, have been singed by their encounters or conversations with Trump. But Japanese officials are optimistic the invitation to visit Trump’s “Winter White House” signals a more positive outcome.
The meeting comes as Trump appears to be shifting toward a more mainstream stance on U.S. policy toward Asia — consolidating alliances and cooperating with rising power China.
Late Thursday, Trump reaffirmed Washington’s long-standing “one China” policy in a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The move will likely ease anger in China over his earlier suggestions that he might use Taiwan as leverage in negotiations over trade, security and other sensitive issues.
Trump’s “America First” rhetoric and campaign trail demands that allies pay more for their own defense had sowed doubts in Tokyo, too. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis allayed many of those concerns during a trip to Japan and South Korea last week. Both countries host tens of thousands of U.S. forces — seen as a deterrent against the nuclear threat from North Korea and China’s growing assertiveness.
Abe has championed a more active role for Japan’s military, easing constraints imposed by the nation’s pacifist post-World War II constitution and allowing forces to defend allies, even if Japan itself is not under attack. That’s a trend likely to be welcomed by Trump.
The economic side of the U.S.-Japan relationship is more uncertain.
One of Trump’s first actions as president was to withdraw the U.S. from a 12-nation, trans-Pacific trade agreement that was negotiated by the Obama administration and strongly supported by Tokyo.
Trump also has criticized Toyota Motor Corp. for planning to build an assembly plant in Mexico and complained Japanese don’t buy enough U.S.-made cars.