TOKYO — President Donald Trump on Saturday began a four-day state visit to Japan that is high on pomp and ceremony meant to underline the strength of the alliance, even as possible trade rifts and regional tensions with North Korea loomed in the background.
The trip, with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as host, has been tailor-made to flatter Trump’s ego. The president will become the first foreign leader to meet new Emperor Naruhito since he ascended the Chrysanthemum Throne at the beginning of May.
But there are serious and contentious issues on the periphery, among them Trump’s determination to get a better deal on trade with Japan and to persuade Tokyo to pay more for the U.S. military presence here, in addition to deadlock with North Korea and rapidly rising tensions with Iran.
“We just spent many, many hours on the plane,” Trump said Saturday evening to a gathering of several dozen Japanese business executives at the U.S. ambassador’s residence, where he headed as soon as Air Force One touched down at Haneda Airport. “We just walked off the plane, and here we are.”
On Saturday, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, said North Korea had clearly violated U.N. Security Council resolutions by testing short-range ballistic missiles this month. He said Trump and Abe would underline the importance of maintaining the “integrity” of those sanctions resolutions.
Bolton said North Korea had not responded to attempts by the United States and South Korea to restart talks after the breakdown of a summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi in February.
Trump later appeared to contradict Bolton, tweeting, “North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me.” He said he still had “confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”
But if Trump’s North Korea policy is in disarray, he will at least find a friendly ear in Abe.
More sensitive could be the issue of Iran, after Trump announced Friday he would be sending an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East to counter what the administration says are increased threats from Tehran.
Japan has long-standing diplomatic and cultural ties with Iran and opposed the U.S. decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated under the administration of President Barack Obama. On Saturday, Japanese news media said a plan was being drawn up for Abe to visit Iran in June to meet President Hassan Rouhani in an attempt to mediate and that this was something Japan’s leader would discuss with Trump.
Abe’s trip would follow a visit to Japan by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif this month.
Abe, who first visited Iran with his father in 1983, has maintained close ties with the Iranian leadership since becoming prime minister. The two countries signed an investment agreement in 2016 and are celebrating 90 years of diplomatic engagement this year.
Akihisa Nagashima, an independent politician and former national security expert, welcomed the news that Abe could be trying to mediate.
“A remarkable face-saving mission,” he tweeted. “This is the ‘realistic solution’ that could save both the face of President Trump, who is finding it hard to deal with Bolton’s hard stance, and that of the prime minister, who’s having difficulty in Japan’s relationship with Russia and North Korea.
“Suddenly, the Japan-U.S. summit, which was seen as having no diplomatic agenda, carries meaning. This is what we call quiet diplomacy.”
Bolton declined to comment Saturday when asked about possible Japanese mediation except to say the two leaders will “certainly discuss Iran.”
He repeated U.S. accusations that “Iran and its proxies” were behind violent attacks in recent weeks, including on oil tankers and pipelines, adding that the administration is “very concerned about this level of very dangerous behavior by the Iranian regime.”
Bilateral issues are also on the agenda. Shortly before leaving, Trump tweeted, “I will also be discussing Trade and Military with my friend, Prime Minister @AbeShinzo.”
Trump has threatened to impose a 25% tariff on foreign cars, a measure that would have a serious impact on Japan’s economy, although he recently announced that the measure would be delayed 180 days to allow for talks on ways to restrict import volumes.