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“Inside story” of Abe-Trump summit meeting

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe strengthened his bonds with President Donald Trump by holding a summit meeting and playing golf with him during his visit to the U.S. from Feb. 9-13. Apart from confirming the “unwavering Japan-U.S. alliance,” setting up a framework for “economic dialogue” under the No. 2 leaders of both countries – Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso and Vice President Mike Pence – is also of great significance. What happened behind the scenes at the summit meeting?


Right after he decided on his U.S. visit during a teleconference with Trump on the evening of Jan. 28, Abe asked Aso to accompany him on this trip. While he was confident of getting along with Trump from his trip to the U.S. last November, he was still concerned that “Trump may mix security and economics in making his deals.” He needed to avoid security and economics being discussed together, and his trump card in this regard was his “tough-looking” ally, Aso.


Abe boarded the government plane with Aso, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda, and other officials at Haneda Airport on the evening of Feb. 9.


Since Abe was accompanied by a large number of officials on this first official summit, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and others boarded the backup aircraft.


There is a VIP room at the very front of the government aircraft used by the imperial family, the prime minister, and others. Kantei [Prime Minister’s Official Residence] officials had suggested to Aso, a former prime minister, that he take the backup plane and relax in the VIP room there.


However, Aso insisted that he would like to be on the same plane with Abe. Hagiuda told him: “This is also a crisis management issue. Mr. Deputy Prime Minister, please take the backup plane.”


Aso laughed and said: “If Abe and I die (in an accident), Suga (Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga) can take over, can’t he?”


With Aso riding in the same plane, the government plane that departed Haneda Airport on the evening of Feb. 9 became a venue for strategic planning.


The newly inaugurated Trump administration was still in confusion, so coordination on the details of the joint statement had not been completed, let alone the economic dialogue.


The U.S. side had basically agreed to the economic dialogue and was thinking of naming Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross or National Trade Council chief Peter Navarro to head the new body. However, Abe resisted this because “a mere cabinet level official would not be able to control the whole administration; it should be a higher-level framework.”


Abe was eyeing Vice President Pence. The key question was how to make Trump agree.


Abe and Aso arrived in Washington in snowy weather in the late afternoon on Feb. 9, local time. Aso was relaxing in his room after having a steak dinner with Abe and others in a restaurant inside the Willard Intercontinental near the White House. Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba and Vice Finance Minister Masatsugu Asagawa suddenly called on him and told him: “The U.S. side will report to President Trump on the draft joint statement tomorrow morning. The working level officials are 100% okay with it.”


Aso asked: “Really?” He went through the draft and was surprised to find that hardly any changes had been made to the wording proposed by the Japanese side to the U.S. side. He asked for the English version and found that likewise, almost no revisions had been made.


Aso was still doubtful. He asked: “Are you sure they are not making any changes?” Akiba and others were very confident about this.


The sky was clear on the morning of Feb. 10, but it was very cold. After attending a breakfast meeting hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Aso went to the White House.


At their first meeting, Aso found that Pence was a serious and honest man with good posture. Pence used to be the governor of Indiana, where Toyota, Honda, and Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru) have production plants that hire the highest number of workers among Japanese companies based on population. Pence visited Japan several times in person to invite Japanese companies to operate in Indiana, so more than anyone else, he was well aware of the importance of Japan-U.S. cooperation.


Aso urged Pence to work with him to promote the economic dialogue, but Pence declined, saying: “I have little diplomatic or economic experience, so I may not be the best person.”


Aso said to him: “Indiana is a model case for Japan-U.S. cooperation. There are 50 states in America, which means you just have to do what you did there 50 times. It’s simple, isn’t it?”


Pence was still reluctant, as if wary of what Trump would think. He said: “It’s an honor, but…,” continuing to avoid giving a definite answer.


After his meeting with Pence, Aso bumped into presidential assistant Michael Flynn (resigned on Feb. 13) while walking in the White House hallway on his way to participate in the summit meeting.


When he asked, “What’s going on with the draft joint statement?” Flynn responded with satisfaction: “100%” Aso asked in English once again: “Are you sure?” Flynn’s answer was very clear: “OK, sir.”


However, there was one change made to the draft joint statement Aso saw on the previous night. Aso’s and Pence’s names had been removed from the passages on the economic dialogue.


Therefore, the designation of the leaders of the economic dialogue was now solely up to Abe and Trump at their summit meeting. Abe brought up the subject as the other Japanese officials looked on nervously: “The Japanese side would like to have Deputy Prime Minister Aso head the economic dialogue.”


When Trump did not say anything, Abe went on: “You know what? Mr. Aso once ran against me in the Liberal Democratic Party presidential election.”


Trump was astonished because he did not know.


Pence had supported Senator Ted Cruz in the initial phase of the presidential election. Although he is now the vice president, he is treated as an “outsider.” Yet, Abe had given such an important position to a former rival. It seems that Trump regarded this as a test of his broad-mindedness. After hesitating for a second, he looked at Pence and said: “Then, I am asking you.”


He added: “But be careful. Look at him (Aso). He is a tough negotiator. Do your best.”


Everybody in the room laughed at what he said. Aso stood up and offered his hand to Pence, who also stood up smiling and shook his hand, after glancing quickly at Trump. (Slightly abridged)

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