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Abe Cabinet hails Trump talks, others in Japan remain uneasy

TOKYO, Nov. 18, Kyodo — Members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet on Friday welcomed his meeting with U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, but the private nature of the talks left some in Japan wondering just how much progress the leaders made on sticking points in the bilateral relationship.


After the talks in New York, apparently Trump’s first sit-down meeting with a foreign leader since his Nov. 8 election victory, the government’s top spokesman told a press conference ties between Tokyo and the Trump team are “off to an extremely good start.”


“I think this was a wonderful meeting, serving as a first step for the building of a strong relationship of trust between the leaders before the new U.S. administration begins in January,” said Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, often described as Abe’s right-hand man.


Finance Minister Taro Aso was similarly optimistic, citing the fact that the meeting went longer than expected as an indication Abe and Trump “are on the same wavelength.”


Abe told a press conference just after the meeting only that he is confident he can build a “relationship of trust” with Trump, refraining from revealing the specific points the two discussed. The Japanese government did not issue any further details of substance.


Expectation had built ahead of the meeting that Abe could ask Trump to explain his calls on the campaign trail for Japan to pay more for benefiting from the Japan-U.S. security alliance.


Prefectural government officials in Okinawa, which shoulders most of the U.S. military facilities in Japan, watched Abe’s press conference intently for signs the pair had covered base-related issues.


Okinawa is locked in an ongoing row with the central government over a plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Air Station Futenma from a crowded city area to a coastal location elsewhere in the prefecture.


While the central government has been trying to gain local consent for the plan, in line with a 20-year-old accord with the United States, local governments and residents have been pushing to move the base outside of Okinawa.


A senior prefectural government official said Okinawa should “make appeals to Trump and those around him on the base issue using whatever channels we can.”


“Did they really need to meet in such a rush, while it hasn’t even been decided who will fill out the next administration?” asked activist Hiroshi Ashitomi, 70, who is against the base transfer plan.


“I have a feeling that if (Japan) doesn’t solidly prepare, we could be taken advantage of and become even more dependent on the United States,” Ashitomi said.


Defense Ministry officials are looking for clarification of the incoming administration’s defense policy for the Asia-Pacific region, where Japan and several other countries are embroiled in territorial disputes with China.


Beijing has been challenging Tokyo’s administration of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, continuously sending government ships into waters around the uninhabited islands.


“Depending on whether (the Japanese government) can make the United States promise to stay involved in defending the Senkaku Islands, Japan’s defense policy would undergo a major change,” a senior Defense Ministry official said.


Abe had said before leaving Japan that he would press Trump on the importance of free trade, fuelling speculation they might discuss ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade pact — which Abe supports but Trump opposes.


Trump has said he will pull the United States out of the TPP as soon as he takes office on Jan. 20, while Abe has remained dedicated to getting all participants to ratify the pact despite indications that current U.S. President Barack Obama has given up trying to get the TPP approved before the end of his term.


“Honestly, I don’t care (what happens to the TPP) anymore,” said Yukio Ogura, a 65-year-old dairy farmer from Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido. “We didn’t need it before, and there’s no need to suddenly make a fuss about it once we’ve come to this point.”


The main opposition Democratic Party’s leader Renho called on Abe to reveal the extent of his discussion with Trump on issues that matter to Japan’s national interest, including the TPP and the U.S. military base costs.


“Of course (Abe) has an obligation to explain,” Renho said in the House of Councillors after the meeting.


Asked at his press conference if the content of the meeting was being kept private at Trump’s request, Suga said the secrecy was a matter of diplomatic common sense.

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