Since Donald Trump’s election last November, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sure has had a lot of firsts in the United States.
He was the first head of government to meet with Trump, which he did ten days after the election at Trump Tower in Manhattan.
He was the first sitting prime minister to visit Pearl Harbor with a U.S. president, which he did with President Obama in late December.
Abe was the first head of government to receive a visit from Defense Secretary James Mattis, who made his first foreign trip leading the Pentagon earlier this month when he visited South Korea and Japan.
And this weekend, he will become the first head of government to stay at the “winter White House,” Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida. White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday Trump will pay for Abe’s accommodations himself.
The depth of Trump’s developing relationship with Abe is notable, particularly in contrast to calls the president has held with foreign leaders from Australia to Mexico, which have been reported to be tense.
In a call previewing the visit, a senior administration official explained:
“I think that in the first few weeks of the Trump administration, you can see the importance that President Trump has placed on our alliances in the Asia Pacific. Alliances, in his view, are central to our security and prosperity. At the end of the day, America is great because of our alliances, and the U.S. recognizes that we have tremendous interests across the region.”
While hammering out a bilateral trade agreement may be a focus in the United States since President Trump pulled the plug on the Tran-Pacific Partnership — the multilateral trade agreement President Obama negotiated before leaving office — security appears to be Abe’s mission.
Lanhee Chen, a top policy adviser to Mitt Romney who informally advises the Trump administration on domestic issues, told Independent Journal Review, “Certainly North Korea is top of mind for Japan in a way that it is not for the U.S. From a relationship perspective, the strategic security issues are front and center right now much more than the trade issue.”
Chen acknowledged some of Trump’s rhetoric during the campaign may have led the Japanese to worry that the U.S. would be less active in the Pacific region. He thinks that Abe’s repeated overtures to Trump are designed to make sure Americans understand how much Japan values the relationship.
Indeed, according to a Japanese readout of the meeting between Mattis and Abe last week:
Secretary Mattis said that the U.S. would show that it would be with Japan, and in responding to the common challenges such as North Korea, he wanted to make clear the importance of Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty.
Both sides exchanged views on regional challenges as well as undertakings to strengthen the alliance, and they agreed on having a more coordinated Japan-U.S. response for peace and stability in the region.
Secretary Mattis stated that he reaffirmed the U.S. commitment in the alliance, including its obligation to defend Japan as well as the provision of extended deterrence to its allies.
Prime Minister Abe laid out his view to expand the roles that Japan could take by strengthening its defense capability, amid the increasingly difficult security environment in the region. Both sides agreed on working together to further strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance.
Regarding the issues related to North Korea, both sides agreed on the recognition that nuclear and missile development by North Korea cannot be tolerated, and that it is important to improve deterrence and response capacities through security cooperation between Japan and the U.S., as well as among Japan, the U.S., and the Republic of Korea.
Following the election when Trump spoke frequently with President Obama, speculation mounted that the incoming president learned North Korea posed a far greater threat than he had previously realized.
In recent days, he’s admonished the press for under-covering terrorist attacks and threats, though he referred more specifically to atrocities ISIS has committed overseas.
Now, as President Trump begins to engage allies more forcefully and develops his foreign doctrine, Abe’s visit this weekend may be most instructive for the spate of foreign leaders still trying to decide how to broach a relationship with him.
Editor’s Note: This story previously said Chen was an informal adviser to the Trump administration on foreign policy and national security. He has not been advising them on these issues.