President Donald Trump will play host to Japan’s Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago this week amid growing strain between the two countries over the president’s planned meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and his push for new tariffs.
The visit will be an opportunity for the two leaders to discuss Trump’s upcoming summit with North Korea, which Japan eyes warily. It will also serve as a test of whether the fond personal relationship the two leaders have forged on the golf course and over meetings and phone calls has chilled over Trump’s recent moves, including his failure to exempt Japan from new steel and aluminum tariffs.
“We expect it to be very positive,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday of Abe’s visit. “Obviously, the president has got a great relationship there, and it’s going to be centered primarily on preparation for talks with North Korea as well as a lot of trade discussion is expected to come up.”
The official visit will begin Tuesday afternoon with a one-on-one meeting followed by a small group discussion with top national security officials focused on the Kim summit. In the evening, the president and first lady Melania Trump will have dinner with the Japanese prime minister and his wife.
On Wednesday, the topic will broaden to other issues affecting the Indo-Pacific region, including trade and energy. Trump and Abe will also hold a joint press conference before the president and first lady host the Japanese delegations for dinner. Abe will return to Japan on Thursday morning.
Golf is not on the official schedule, but senior administration officials didn’t rule it out completely. Trump and Abe played together during Abe’s last trip to Florida a year ago and during Trump’s maiden trip to Japan late last year.
When Trump hosted Abe at his private Mar-a-Lago club just weeks after his inauguration, North Korea launched its first missile test of Trump’s administration, and the two delivered a joint statement denouncing the launch.
This time, Abe’s visit comes weeks after Trump took him — and the region — by surprise when he announced he had accepted an invitation to sit down with Kim following months of increasingly heated rhetoric over the North’s nuclear weapons program.
Among the major powers in Northeast Asia, Japan has been left out of the recent flurry of diplomacy with North Korea. Abe will be seeking reassurance from Trump that security threats to Japan won’t be overlooked in the U.S.-North Korea summit, slated for May or early June.
Mike Pompeo, Trump’s pick for secretary of state, said the goal of the summit is to get North Korea to “step away from its efforts to hold America at risk with nuclear weapons.”
Abe has voiced fears that short- and medium-range missiles that pose a threat to Japan might not be part of the U.S. negotiations and has said he worries Trump may “end up accepting North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons.”
James Schoff, a former Pentagon adviser on East Asia policy and now a senior associate for the Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the North Korea summit will be front and center of the visit.
“Abe will want to know what Trump’s trying to get out of the meeting and what he’s willing to offer,” Schoff said. “Abe will want to reinforce the idea that maximum pressure must continue until we get complete denuclearization.”
Abe is also expected to push for exemptions on new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports that have been granted to several key U.S. allies.
Takehiro Shimada, a spokesman for the Embassy of Japan, said the country can’t accept Trump’s decision on the tariffs and will be pushing Trump to reconsider.
“That’s what we really wanted to ask the America side is, ‘Why?'” he said.
Japan could also express support for a U.S. return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Trump abandoned on taking office. Trump opened the possibility of rejoining last week amid a trade dispute with China.
Both sides insist that Trump and Abe remain close. U.S. officials stressed that Trump has met with Abe more than any other world leader and say they’ve been in “constant contact” since Trump accepted Kim’s invitation.
Abe is also expected to push the issue of Japanese abductees, one of his top policy priorities. Pyongyang has acknowledging abducting 13 Japanese, while Tokyo maintains North Korea abducted 17. Five have been returned to Japan. North Korea says eight others died and denies the remaining four entered its territory. Japan has not been satisfied with North Korea’s explanation and has demanded further investigation.
Shimada said Abe would make the case to Trump that releasing the abductees could help North Korea prove they can be trusted to negotiate in good faith after years of deception.
The U.S. itself is pushing for the release of three Americans.
After five years in office, Abe is one of Japan’s longest-serving, post-World War II prime ministers but has suffered plummeting poll ratings over allegations that a school linked to his wife got preferential government treatment in a land sale.
That has sparked mass protests demanding Abe’s resignation and imperils his chances of winning another term as ruling party leader in September and staying on as premier, despite a handy national election victory last year.