Japanese Prime Minister's Visit Gives Trump Chance for Diplomatic Restart

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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands at the prime minister's office in Tokyo on February 3. Abe is meeting with President Donald Trump at the White House today. Eugene Hoshiko/REUTERS

President Donald Trump is preparing to mount a diplomatic charm offensive this weekend, after unnerving foreign leaders by questioning traditional U.S. alliances and making a series of aggressive, off-the-cuff remarks during his first weeks in the White House.

The president will be welcoming Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Washington, D.C. today for a meeting in the Oval Office and a press conference with national reporters, before hosting Abe and his wife for a social weekend at his Florida country club, Mar-a-Lago. “I imagine there will be a fair bit of golf involved,” a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday, as well as plenty of time for “eating and relaxing.” Then, on Monday, Trump will welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the White House.

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The flurry of meetings comes as the president tries to mop up the damage from a series of embarrassing White House leaks detailing his first round of phone calls with foreign leaders in the days following his inauguration. Reports that Trump hung up on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after a tiff over a refugee resettlement agreement drew wide coverage in the American and Australian press. Accounts that the president threatened to send U.S. troops into Mexico to fight drug cartels and told Russian President Vladimir Putin he opposed a landmark arms control treaty (despite initially not knowing what the treaty entailed) have prompted further criticism at home and abroad. So did Trump’s scuffle with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over who will pay for a proposed border wall between the two countries, prompting the latter to cancel his planned U.S. visit.

Abe is the first foreign leader to attend meetings at the White House in the wake of those incidents, and only the second such visitor of the new president’s short tenure in office (British Prime Minister Theresa May met with Trump a week after he was sworn in). Trump and Abe also met in New York in November, shortly after the real estate mogul’s shocking election victory. On Thursday, a senior administration official said Abe’s visit reflects “the importance that President Trump has placed on our alliances in the Asia Pacific. The alliances, in his view, are central to America’s security and prosperity.”

That’s a far cry from Trump’s rhetoric on the campaign trail, when he repeatedly questioned why the U.S. spent so much money on military installations and other security operations in Asia. “We cannot afford to be losing vast amounts of billions of dollars on all of this,” the Republican told The New York Times in March 2016, referring to the U.S. military presence in Japan and South Korea. That American presence has been a pillar of regional security since World War II. Trump also suggested that he’d be willing to allow countries like Japan and South Korea to acquire nuclear weapons, rather than provide a nuclear deterrent for them. And he’s pulled the United States out of a trade agreement with Asia-Pacific countries known as the TPP, a blow to efforts to counter China’s economic might in the region.

But in recent weeks the Trump White House has taken pains to reassure Asian allies that the president’s comments last year do not reflect his current stance in office. The new U.S. Defense Secretary, James Mattis, traveled to Seoul and Tokyo last week—his first trip in his new post—and largely reinforced existing U.S. policy. Namely, the United States will come to the aid of its longtime allies if and when they are threatened, per the commitments in their security treaties. “I think you’re going to hear similar messages from the president, himself, and I think that will go a long way towards dispelling any doubts that may still be remaining,” the senior administration official said.

 Jeff Bader, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser on Asia on the National Security Council from 2009 to 2011, says that will also be reassuring to other regional allies, who are looking to the United States to counterbalance China’s influence in Asia. At the same time, the Trump administration has shown in recent weeks it isn’t looking to unnecessarily antagonize China, something Mattis reinforced in his Asia visit. Bader notes that after regularly eviscerating Beijing during the campaign, Trump has hardly mentioned China since entering the White House. Late on Thursday, Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke by phone for the first time. According to the White House readout of the “lengthy” call, the president “agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our 'one China’ policy” on Taiwan, a significant reversal after Trump had accepted a call with the Taiwanese president in December—a major diplomatic breach, as China considers the island a part of its territory. 

More than just reassuring Japan and Korea about the strength of the U.S. alliance, Trump’s weekend with Abe and his meeting with Trudeau on Monday give the new president a chance to show nervous Americans and foreigners that he takes diplomacy seriously. His confrontational approach to foreign relations during his first weeks in the White House suggested that he either didn’t appreciate how much words and gestures matter in diplomacy, or he just didn’t care. But with this invitation to Mar-a-Lago on top of the Oval Office meeting, the president is clearly aiming to woo Abe.

There are risks to such one-on-one engagement, however. Bader notes that at the same time Trump is sizing up Abe, the Japanese leader will be studying Trump. The prime minister “is very well prepared, very well briefed, he knows his issues,” says Bader, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a D.C. think tank. “It’s all well and good—and important—for Trump to say the right things publicly,” but it will become clear, in private, if he’s not up to speed on the issues. And “that sends a message,” as well, says Bader.

It’s relatively rare for American presidents to host this kind of personal bonding session with foreign leaders outside of the confines of the White House. When Obama hosted Xi at the Sunnylands resort outside of Palm Springs, California, in 2013, it was hailed as a sign of how seriously Obama took the relationship with China. But he only held a couple more foreign summits there during his presidency. Trump's senior administration official suggested these sorts of visits could become a normal part of the current president’s diplomatic arsenal. “He believes he can get the measure of people through more informal settings,” the aide explained. “I believe he’ll make use of time outside of Washington, D.C. with leaders from time to time.”