While trade and security were expected to be among the first items Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would broach with President Donald Trump when the two met on Friday, another sensitive issue likely came up: Russia.
The new White House occupant and the Japanese leader have taken different tracks, but both have been warming up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. All three have reason to want to form a strategic alliance.
“For the first time in a long time, you’re going to have a U.S. president who doesn’t discourage Japan from trying to improve relations with Russia,” said Frank Jannuzi, former Asia adviser to former Secretary of State John Kerry and now head of the Mike and Maureen Mansfield Foundation, a Washington think tank.
It’s a significant change from the arms-length stance Abe kept with Russia at the behest of the Obama administration.
Abe, America’s key ally in the Asia-Pacific, delayed meeting with Putin in deference to President Barack Obama. He also didn’t invite Putin to the Group of Seven summit meeting of leading industrial nations that he hosted in May, again in solidarity with Obama.
Trump and Abe, who held a joint news conference after their meeting Friday, have a lot of other items to discuss. Both have an interest in addressing aggression from North Korea. Trump wants to broach a bilateral trade agreement with Japan after he abandoned a broader Asia-Pacific deal that included a dozen countries.
It’s unclear whether Russia came up during Abe’s Friday visit to the White House or whether he and Trump will discuss it as the play golf together at Trump’s Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Saturday.
During their news conference, Trump and Abe showered each other with compliments. Abe congratulated Trump for an incredible achievement of being elected president despite never serving in public office. Trump said their relationship was so strong that he’d hugged the Japanese leader when he arrived at the White House.
“We have a very, very good bond, very, very good chemistry. I’ll let you know if it changes, but I don’t think it will,” Trump said.
Trump emphasized the U.S. commitment to the security of Japan and called the alliance a cornerstone of peace and stability in the region. Abe welcomed the United States having a stronger presence in the region. He spoke of the two countries’ shared concerns about threats from North Korea and vowed they would work together to pursue order in the region.
“We strongly demand North Korea abandon nuclear and ballistic missile programs and not to make any more propagations,” Abe said.
Russia did not come up at the news conference, and there was no reference to it in the leaders’ joint statement. A senior administration official in the Trump administration declined to discuss Japan’s priorities with Russia, but said it was understandable that the Japan-Russia relationship was an important one.
“We certainly understand that Japan as a neighbor of Russia puts a high importance on its own bilateral relations with Russia,” said the official, who had knowledge of the situation but was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
Abe was the first world leader to visit Trump following his election, calling on him at Trump Tower in New York. He’s only the second government leader to visit since Trump’s inauguration.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis took steps to address one of Japan’s first concerns, which is that the United States uphold its commitment to defend two uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that Japan controls but China claims. In China, they’re known as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku.
Despite Mattis’ assurances, Jannuzi said Abe would want to hear it directly from Trump, which he apparently did. The joint statement notes that the U.S.-Japan treaty on military cooperation covers the Senkaku.
“It sounds different coming out of the president’s lips, and when Obama said it, it got a lot of attention in Japan,” Jannuzi said.
Trump and Abe have their own reasons to cozy up to Putin. For Abe, the reason is largely China and wanting better backing on its territorial disputes. He also doesn’t want Russia and China creating a bloc against Japan.
Abe has sought to engage Putin in hopes of recovering four disputed islands that Russia calls the southern Kurile Islands and Japan calls the Northern Territories.
Trump wants to improve relations with Russia in an attempt to have its help in the fight against the Islamic State and global terrorism.
Russia also has interest in Japan as a potential investor in Russia’s far east, where it needs billions to develop oil and gas resources. Russia has teamed up with China on some of these infrastructure projects, but it’s looking to diversify, Jannuzi said.
Eugene Rumer, a former national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the U.S. National Intelligence Council, which is part of the U.S. intelligence community, said the United States and Japan appeared to have some similar interests in weakening the bond between Russia and China but that it was too early in the administration to define what was driving it.
“I want to stress we have so little evidence to go on about the Trump administration policy, about sort of Russia and China relations, that we’re forced to speculate,” said Rumer, who is a senior fellow and the director of the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program.