Amid tariff threat, Japan to impress Trump with golf, wrestling and warship

Shinzo Abe, Japan PM
With U.S.-Japan tensions swirling over trade, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is treating Donald Trump to some fun when he visits Tokyo for a state visit: A round of golf, sumo wrestling and a visit to a warship.

Trump’s widely expected visit to the Kaga, one of the two biggest warships Japan has built since World War II, will also be a chance for Abe to emphasize that his government is spending more on U.S. military equipment as they wrangle over trade. 

Top negotiators will meet separately to hammer out a deal, with the U.S. threatening to raise auto tariffs and seeking more access to Japan’s agricultural market.

Abe has poured resources into cultivating a personal relationship with Trump since his 2016 victory, using a heavy dose of flattery to sidestep damaging trade actions. 

While Abe has been criticized for a questionable return on his investment, he has faced little backlash from voters who understand Japan needs the U.S. nuclear deterrent against potential threats from China and North Korea.

“People think it’s wise for Abe-san not to preach to Trump, who doesn’t like to be preached at,” said Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the U.S., who is now president of the Nakasone Peace Institute. “I think Abe knows that in order to deal with Americans, you make friends and then things go better. When we have good relations with the U.S., the Chinese notice that.”

Japan is pulling out all the stops to impress the U.S. leader during his May 25-28 visit. 

He will become the first foreign leader to meet Emperor Naruhito, who acceded to the throne May 1 following the abdication of his father, marking the start of the first new imperial era in three decades.

“With all the countries of the world, I’m the guest of honor at the biggest event that they’ve had in over 200 years,” Trump told reporters on Thursday. “So it’s a great thing.”

Trump’s visit comes less than a month after Abe’s last trip to the U.S. and will be followed by a third summit in June, when the U.S. leader is expected to again travel to Japan for the Group of 20 meeting in Osaka. Next week’s summit will be the 11th between the two men.

Trump is expected to attend the final of the spring sumo championship, and he and his wife Melania will be the guests of honor at a state banquet at the imperial palace. Trump and Abe will also hold a joint press conference Monday.

Tariff Threat

While little substantive progress is expected during the trip in talks between U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Economy Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, Japan’s efforts show how seriously it is taking Trump’s threats.

Last week he issued an executive order that called imports of foreign cars and auto parts a threat to U.S. national security, and allowed 180 days for negotiations with foreign governments, essentially Japan and the European Union, to address the issue before a decision on “further action” is taken.

The levies would add to the pain for Japanese manufacturers already dealing with punitive tariffs on steel and aluminum exports. 

The order sparked a strongly worded rebuke from Toyota Motor Corp., which said Trump gave the impression its investments were unwelcome and its U.S.-based employees not valued. This week the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association also said it was “profoundly disappointed” by the U.S. leader’s statement.

The clash over cars is “the first serious test case for the Abe-Trump special relationship,” said Junji Nakagawa, a professor at Chuogakuin University in Chiba. “If Abe succeeds in containing the U.S. measure on autos, the special relationship will make sense, but I’m not sure and I’m not optimistic.”

Defense Spending

Japan has attempted to use military procurement to assuage Trump’s frustration over its trade surplus with the U.S., which grew by 17.7% in April compared with the same month a year earlier. It has announced plans to buy 147 Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighters, including the F-35B variant adapted for takeoff and landing on ships like the one Trump will visit.

The visit to the Kaga warship is “a very tangible example” for Abe to show Trump of the Japanese military’s resources and its collaboration with U.S. forces, said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the conservative Heritage Foundation and a former U.S. intelligence official.

The trip could also give reinforcement to Abe by showing “that the U.S. is fully behind Japan moving ahead with larger defense spending and a more robust security posture,” said Michael Green, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Bush administration National Security Counsel staffer.

A few hours before Trump was set to arrive, National Security Advisor John Bolton said the U.S.-Japan “alliance has never been stronger” and brought up one of the pressing security concerns -- North Korea. He told reporters in Tokyo Saturday that the U.S. wants to restart nuclear talks with Pyongyang, while calling the regime’s missile launches this month a violation of United Nations resolutions.