Japanese PM looks to win Trump's trust in White House talks

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump's meeting with Japan's prime minister offers a chance to shore up a long-standing security alliance and repair economic ties shaken by US withdrawal from a Pacific trade pact.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who is expected to propose more Japanese investment in the US, has wasted no time in trying to win Trump's trust. He was the only world leader to meet the Republican before inauguration, and will be the second to do so since the new president took office.

Trump and Abe will hold talks in the Oval Office on Friday, followed by a joint news conference and a working lunch. Trump will then host Abe and his wife at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. The two leaders are scheduled to play golf on Saturday.

Other leaders of America's closest neighbors and allies, such as Mexico, Britain and Australia, have been singed by their encounters or conversations with Trump. But Japanese officials are optimistic the invitation to visit Trump's "Winter White House" signals a more positive outcome.

Although the US administration is only three weeks old, some repair work is already in order. Trump's "America First" rhetoric and campaign trail demands that allies pay more for their own defense sowed doubts in Tokyo about the new administration's commitment to an alliance that has underpinned security in the Asia-Pacific since the end of World War II and one which Abe has sought to strengthen.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis allayed many of those concerns during a trip to Japan and South Korea last week. Both countries host tens of thousands of US forces — seen as a deterrent against the nuclear threat from North Korea and China's growing assertiveness.

A senior US official said that the Trump administration is upholding the US position that its defense treaty with Japan applies to East China Sea islands disputed by Japan and China — a stance opposed by Beijing. The president is expected to speak on that subject, the official said.

The official spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the planning for the trip ahead of Abe's arrival in Washington late Thursday.

The economic side of the US-Japan relationship is more uncertain.

One of Trump's first actions as president was to withdraw the US from a 12-nation, trans-Pacific trade agreement that was negotiated by the Obama administration and strongly supported by Tokyo.

Trump has also criticized Toyota Motor Corp. for planning to build an assembly plant in Mexico and complained Japanese don't buy enough US-made cars.

But Japanese companies are already major employers in the US, and Japanese officials say they are hammering out a job-creation package of infrastructure investments to propose during Abe's visit.

Abe has said that Japan may be open to a bilateral trade deal with the US, which is Trump's preference, but reaching such a deal would be politically difficult. Japan logged the second-largest trade surplus with the US last year, similar to the surpluses of Germany and Mexico, but far smaller than China's.