Decoding the Trump-Abe summit
Donald Trump gave a warm White House welcome to Japan's Shinzo Abe, pledging closer security and economic co-operation despite the hostile rhetoric of last year's US election campaign. Washington bureau chief Demetri Sevastopulo and US news editor Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson discuss the revival of the two nations' alliance.
Produced by Gregory Bobillot. Filmed by Donell Newkirk. Extra b-rolls: Reuters
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Welcome to the "Financial Times". I'm Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson, the US news editor. I'm joined today by Demetri Sevastopolu, the Washington Bureau Chief who has been covering today's summit between the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and the US president Donald Trump at the White House. Demetri, what was the significance of today's meeting?
During the presidential campaign, Donald Trump said a lot of negative things about the alliance. He suggested that he might pull troops out of Japan, also South Korea. He suggested that Japan should start thinking about developing nuclear weapons to counter North Korea. There was a lot of friction in terms of trade, currency, and Japan bashing.
So Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister wanted to get into Washington quickly to make a pitch to Donald Trump to try and get him to tone down some of his protectionist rhetoric and to get him to express support for the strength of the alliance and the importance of the alliance. And so he wanted to get in quickly. He is the second government leader to get in to see Donald Trump after he has entered the White House. And frankly, he's giving a two day summit, which is very lavish, and getting a lot of entertainment, and is doing much better than probably most of the other US allies are expecting to do in their first meeting with Donald Trump.
Now the first meeting between Donald Trump and another world leader was with Theresa May. It was a little short and a little awkward. How was the body language today and the actual language?
Donald Trump today said that their conversation in New York was so good that when he greeted Shinzo Abe at the White House today, he actually hugged him and welcome him, which is quite unusual and a very different way of greeting a foreign leader, particularly when it comes to Donald Trump. I think their chemistry looked good even though they're speaking in different languages. And the fact that they're going to be playing golf tomorrow is clearly something that Shinzo Abe is very happy about, because it gives him a chance to develop the kind of relationship that you can't develop in an hour or an hour and a half in the White House. The Japanese are extremely happy.
So Demetri you broke the news of the first call since Donald Trump took office between the US president and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. How does that call colour this visit coming on the eve of Shinzo Abe's trip to Washington?
Well, I don't think it colours the meeting. I think there's a couple of things we need to think about. The first is a lot of people within the Trump administration itself were pushing Donald Trump to support the one-China policy, making the argument that if you think it's a bargaining chip to try and get a broader deal, that probably you're wrong. The Chinese do not see Taiwan as a bargaining chip. They see it as a red line.
So I think Donald Trump rolled back his position on that a little bit. Japan wants the US to take a tough position on China, both in terms of some of the disputes in the East China Sea and also in the South China Sea, but Japan doesn't want war. And so I think the call with President Xi which came the night before the meeting with Abe was important because it improved or set the stage for an improvement in US-China relations and enhancing stability in the region, which ultimately also helps Japan.
So I think the Americans did it before the Abe meeting so that the Chinese wouldn't feel too upset about the fact that the Japanese leader is getting a two day summit. But they also did it because Japan will benefit from this as well. So I think in this situation it's one of those rare occasions where it's probably a win-win for everybody.
So Demetri you were with General James Mattis last week on his first trip to Asia since being appointed by the president. How consistent a message are you hearing from the Trump administration at the moment about its policy in Asia?
Today it was like a bromance. Donald Trump said nothing negative about Japan, many positive things. He said the alliance was hugely important. And that's essentially the message that James Mattis brought to Tokyo last week.
He said the US-Japan alliance was a model. Both General Mattis and the White House today said that if anyone tried to attack the Senkaku Islands, which is a disputed chain in the East China Sea, which the Chinese claim and they call the Diaoyu. If anyone tried to attack those islands, which is code for China, then the US would come to their defence under the US-Japan security treaty. So I think that was hugely important for the Japanese to get the American president to sign up to that. So what you've seen is a consistent message over the last week, but one that's completely inconsistent with what Donald Trump said during the campaign.