WASHINGTON — Amid global tensions and growing assertiveness from North Korea and China, the United States and Japan are going to great lengths to cement and strengthen the bonds between the two Pacific Rim nations.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is returning to the United States Friday to meet with President Donald Trump at the White House, and then the two men are traveling together to Florida for a golfing weekend at the president’s mansion in Palm Beach.
Abe’s visit also accentuates efforts being made by the U.S. military to show support for Japan. Secretary of Defense James Mattis took his first overseas trip last week, pointedly selecting Japan and South Korea as his first two international destinations.
The U.S.’s ties to Japan are particularly important to Hawaii because of Japan’s proximity to Hawaii, its popularity with Japanese tourists and its ancestral ties for many Hawaii residents.
Mattis, a retired general, said he considered the visit a “listening tour,” in which he said he would try to learn as much as possible about what the U.S.’s chief allies in Asia see as emerging threats.
North Korea, led by volatile and combative leader Kim Jong Un, has exploded nuclear devices, seeks to build intercontinental ballistic missiles and has invested huge amounts of his impoverished country’s assets on a costly military buildup.
The Chinese, meanwhile, have built a network of artificial islands in the South China Sea in the past three years, equipping them with military-grade runways and telecommunications systems, essentially creating overseas forward bases for military action.
Mattis said that the United States will deploy its most advanced technology in Asia and expects to do much more “to increase interoperability between our forces, and to bolster Japan’s capabilities from peacetime to contingency, if needed.”
“The relationship between the United States and Japan is enduring and will remain as the cornerstone of peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region,” Mattis said at a press conference in Tokyo on Jan. 4, noting that he had served in Japan as a young Marine Corps lieutenant in 1972.
He also reassured Japan by confirming that the U.S. position remains unchanged on the Senkaku Islands, uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are administered by Japan but whose ownership is contested by China and Taiwan.
The Honolulu-based U.S. Pacific Command, meanwhile, has announced a series of joint operations between the armed forces of Japan and the United States. Some efforts were years in preparation but were unveiled in a barrage of press releases over the past week.
On Feb. 3, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, the Japanese Ministry of Defense and U.S. sailors aboard the USS John Paul Jones successfully conducted a flight test to intercept a ballistic missile. The target missile was launched at night from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai. The interceptor is being jointly developed by Japan and the United States.
A bilateral training exercise, called Iron Fist 2017, including armed forces from the United States and Japan, meanwhile, is being staged at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, the primary West Coast Marine base, located near San Diego. The goal is to build technical and tactical proficiency for both nations. It started Monday and will end on March 6.
On Tuesday, a forward-deployed guided-missile destroyer, the USS McCampbell, based in Yokosuka, Japan, completed a visit to the historic port city of Otaru, Japan.
On Wednesday, a group of F-35B Lightning II aircraft began conducting regularly scheduled training exercises near Okinawa, Japan. According to Marine Corps spokesmen on Okinawa, the F-35B Lighting II “represents the future of Marine Corps tactical aviation,” replacing the AV-8B Harrier, the F/A-18 Hornet and the EA-6B Prowler.
About 1,100 U.S. service members are slated to train together on Wednesday with about 600 Japanese and Australian counterparts in an exercise designed to increase combat readiness. The focus will be on air combat tactics. The joint exercise will be hosted at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
“As the threat of hostile ballistic missile activity in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region has grown, the U.S. and Japan have been working closely together to increase their ability to detect and counter missiles threatening friendly assets,” said Maj. James Compton of the Air and Space Operations Center Detachment at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu.
The recent flurry of visits and visible demonstrations of military cooperation between Japan and the United States come as Trump shakily assumes the world stage himself. His impulsive tweets and narcissism have unnerved many Americans and left world leaders wondering how best to interact with him.
Abe is expected to make some sort of public gesture to create jobs in the United States.
Abe is making it clear that he sees Japan’s future as alongside the United States, and Trump is doing the same.
White House officials told Washington reporters on a briefing call Thursday that Abe’s visit with Trump “makes clear the importance the president is placing on that relationship.”
The briefing was conducted by senior administration officials, one with the National Security Council and the other a White House East Asia expert. Although they identified themselves, media who attended the briefing, including Civil Beat, were required as a condition of attendance to refrain from quoting the officials by name.
Abe and Trump are scheduled to meet first at the White House on Friday, where they will discuss a “broad range of topics” and, over what White House officials characterized as a “working lunch,” they intend to highlight improved economic cooperation between the two countries.
The White House spokesmen said that the priority for both leaders would be ensuring job growth and security for both countries, noting that Japan and the United States together account for about 30 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
The spokesmen characterized the visit as the “first summit” for Trump since he became president.
Then the two men and their entourages will travel to Palm Beach, where the prime minister and his wife will be Trump’s guests at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private resort, the former estate of cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.
White House officials said the weekend would include golf outings, as both men are avid golfers. Their wives are expected to visit a Japanese garden together.
During his campaign, Trump was critical of the large trade imbalance between the United States and Japan — some $69 billion, second only to China — and said that Japan had taken steps to block the importation of American cars. He also accused Japan of manipulating its currency for national advantage.
Trump’s advisers have said that Japan has used a variety of unfair techniques to protect its manufacturing sector. About 16 percent of jobs in Japan are manufacturing jobs, which are often well-paid, compared with about 8 percent in the United States.
The Japanese say some American-made products, particularly cars, have performed badly in the Japanese market because they are perceived as poorly manufactured.
Japan is, however, dependent on economic cooperation with the United States, as the United States is with Japan. Abe is expected to make some sort of public gesture to create jobs in the United States, either through investment in manufacturing operations or in infrastructure, and there is likely to be discussion of a bilateral trade agreement between the two countries, particularly since Trump withdrew from the 12-country Trans Pacific Partnership, which included Japan.
What Trump wants is more and better employment in the United States, his spokesman said in the press briefing call. “Trump’s priorities can be summed up as jobs, jobs, jobs,” the spokesman said.
But there are defense-related tensions between the United States and Japan as well. In June, large crowds of Japanese protested the U.S. presence in Okinawa. The United States is responding. Thousands of U.S. troops are going to be relocated in several waves, first to Guam and then to Hawaii.
Trump, meanwhile, has said that Japan needs to pay more for its own defense and once suggested that Japan obtain nuclear arms to protect itself.
Abe was the first world leader to visit Trump after his election and before the inauguration, heading to Trump Tower in New York City to meet with Trump and members of his family. It was a bold move in the aftermath of a bitter political fight in the United States.
Then, during the presidential transition, Abe traveled to Hawaii to meet with President Barack Obama to offer his condolences for the events of Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. It was not the formal apology some Americans wanted, but it represented a heartfelt expression of regret. For some Japanese hard-liners, however, that went too far toward appeasement.
Early in his administration, President Obama had embraced what he called a pivot to Asia. Trump appears to be following in his footsteps now.