Donald Trump accused Japan of engaging in unfair trade practices during a visit to Tokyo on the second day of a five-nation Asia tour on which he will focus on economic issues and the mounting threat from North Korea.
In a speech to business leaders on Monday, the US president reprised the economic themes that dominated his presidential campaign, saying trade with Japan was “not free or reciprocal” and that, for example, Japan imported “virtually no cars” from the US.
“We want fair and open trade. But right now, our trade with Japan is not fair and it’s not open,” said Mr Trump. “The United States has suffered massive trade deficits with Japan for many, many years. Many millions of cars are sold by Japan into the United States, whereas virtually no cars go from the United States into Japan.”
The remarks came as Mr Trump pushes a reluctant Japan to enter into bilateral trade talks. Tokyo was disappointed by Mr Trump’s January withdrawal from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that was the economic pillar of the Obama administration’s Asia “pivot”.
“We will have more trade than [we] ever would have under TPP,” said Mr Trump.
But while Mr Trump talked tough on trade, bragging in a press conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Japan’s economy was not “as good as ours”, the overall tone was positive.
A presidential audience with Emperor Akihito passed off without incident. The two men shook hands, Mr Trump repeatedly tapping the emperor’s arm with his left hand, but Mr Trump did not bow.
Earlier in his presidency Mr Trump also faced scrutiny for the way he greeted foreign leaders, including an almost tug-of-war style hand shake with French president Emmanuel Macron, and his failure to shake the hand of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Oval Office.
He had warm words for Mr Abe and for Japan. “It’s an ancient culture and its customs are ancient, and it’s terrific,” the president said.
The two leaders agreed to put the maximum pressure on North Korea. After meeting with the families of Japanese citizens abducted by Pyongyang, Mr Trump said it would be a “tremendous signal” if North Korean leader Kim Yong Un would let them go.
Japan recognises 17 cases where citizens were abducted by North Korea, many of them taken from Japan’s western coast during the 1970s. One of the victims who met Mr Trump was Sakie Yokota, whose daughter Megumi was 13 years old when she disappeared on her way home from school in 1977. North Korea has admitted the abduction but claims Megumi died in 1994.
Donald Trump, right, talking on Monday to Emperor Akihito, left © AP
“Dialogue for the sake of dialogue is meaningless,” said Mr Abe. He declared that Japan agrees 100 per cent with the US stance that all options should be on the table in dealing with North Korea. “This is a time to apply maximum pressure,” he said.
During his 11-day tour of the region, Mr Trump will also visit South Korea and China before flying to Vietnam to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, and then to the Philippines for two more Asian regional summits.
“Abe has already won a domestic victory of sorts by getting Trump to meet with the abductee families, although it won’t make much difference in resolving the abductee issue with North Korea,” said Tobias Harris, a Japan expert at Teneo Intelligence.
Donald Trump, left, and Shinzo Abe participate in a ceremony at the Akasaka Palace © AP
While Mr Trump will discuss trade during his Asia tour, the focus will be on North Korea as he urges other nations to take stronger action to convince Kim Jong Un to abandon his ballistic missile and nuclear programmes. Much attention will be paid to Mr Trump’s comments given previous language about Mr Kim, whom he has described as “Rocket Man” on a “suicide mission”.
The Japanese government backs the US strategy to impose more economic pressure on North Korea, but some officials worry that Mr Trump could spark a miscalculation with his rhetoric.
While many experts believe the US president is using bellicose language to convince Pyongyang he is serious about tackling the threat, there are concerns the US may be preparing for a military strike on North Korea.
Highlighting the growing anxiety, it emerged over the weekend that the Pentagon had recently sent a letter to Congress saying the only way to ensure the US could secure all the nuclear weapons in North Korea was via a ground invasion.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi