Abe makes no gains on trade in talks with Trump

But Japanese PM wins US assurance that both countries see eye to eye on North Korea issue

US President Donald Trump (right) looks on as Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks while dining at Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 18, 2018.
US President Donald Trump (right) looks on as Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks while dining at Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 18, 2018. PHOTO: REUTERS

After two days of talks with President Donald Trump in Florida, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe headed home yesterday largely empty-handed on trade, but with significant gains in aligning the United States with his country's interests on North Korea, especially on the emotive issue of Japanese abductees.

With the US President's upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un the main item on the agenda, he and his guest spent more than seven hours together over meals and a round of golf at Mr Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate.

But while Mr Abe got assurances from his host on Japanese security interests, the two men remained at odds on trade issues. The US and Japan are set to intensify talks on trade, but Mr Trump wants a bilateral deal while Mr Abe much prefers to keep it multilateral.

Mr Abe said at a joint press conference on Wednesday: "On the US side, that they are interested in a bilateral deal, we are aware of that. But... our country's position is that TPP is the best for both of the countries. And based on that position, we shall be dealing with the talks."

The TPP refers to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, whose signatories included Japan and Singapore. It became the 11-nation Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) after Mr Trump pulled the US out of the TPP shortly after taking office last year.

Asked about the possibility of the US rejoining the agreement, Mr Trump said: "I don't want to go back into TPP, but if they offered us a deal that I can't refuse… I would do it. But I like bilateral… I am negotiating a one-on-one deal with Japan."


If the meeting, when I'm there, is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting.

US PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, on the summit with North Korea's Mr Kim Jong Un.

Mr Abe did not manage to win an exemption from recently imposed US tariffs on aluminium and steel for his country, unlike other US allies such as Australia.

He maintained that Japanese steel and aluminium did not negatively affect American security.

"Many of those products… are greatly contributing to the US industries and employment," he said. "So recognising that, we'd like to continue to respond to this matter going forward."

Asked about US tariffs, Mr Trump would say only: "I would look forward to some time in the future to taking them off."

Trade aside, the two leaders were in agreement on North Korea. Mr Trump assured Mr Abe that he would raise the issue of Japanese abductees when he meets Mr Kim some time in the coming weeks.

"We're with you," he told Mr Abe. "You're a lot closer (to North Korea) than we are, but we're working on this together."

While saying he hoped the upcoming Trump-Kim summit, likely at the end of next month or in early June, would lead to positive results, Mr Abe also warned: "Just because North Korea is responding… there should be no reward; maximum pressure should be maintained."

Mr Trump gave the assurance that if the summit with Mr Kim looked like being unfruitful, he would "respectfully" walk out.

Still, at a working lunch with Mr Abe earlier, Mr Trump disclosed that Central Intelligence Agency chief and State Secretary-designate Mike Pompeo had travelled to Pyongyang where he had a good meeting with Mr Kim.

Separately, the Nikkei newspaper quoted sources as saying that the US, Japan and South Korea were urging North Korea to commit to a hard deadline of 2020 for the complete abandonment of its nuclear programme. Such a result would be a political win for Mr Trump, who will be seeking re-election in 2020.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2018, with the headline 'Abe makes no gains on trade in talks with Trump'. Subscribe