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FOCUS: Trump comes to value alliance with Japan in 1st 100 days

U.S. President Donald Trump directed some harsh rhetoric toward
Japan on the campaign trail, but as the 100th day of his presidency
Saturday approaches, he apparently has settled for a mainstream
approach to Washington's relationship with its key ally in Asia.

Faced with strategic challenges such as China's military buildup
and assertive territorial claims in the East and South China seas, as
well as North Korea's pursuit of a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile
capable of hitting the United States, Trump is likely to value the
alliance with Japan as his predecessors did, according to American
scholars.

"Going forward, I do not expect the Trump administration to
drastically alter the main tenets of U.S. policy toward Japan," said
Steven Vogel, a professor of political science at the University of
California, Berkeley.

"More responsible views are likely to prevail in this area
because this is not a priority issue for Trump's political base,"
Vogel said. "Some of his advisers are astute enough to recognize that
the United States needs a strong relationship with Japan so that it
can engage China and North Korea from a position of strength."

After Trump's victory in the Nov. 8 presidential election, there
were uncertainties in Japan about his commitment to the Japan-U.S.
alliance. He had suggested during the campaign that he would withdraw
U.S. troops from Japan, South Korea and other allies unless they pay
more of the cost of stationing U.S. forces in their countries.

Neither had he underscored the U.S commitment to the defense of
the Senkaku Islands, a group of East China Sea islets administered by
Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan, should Beijing attempt to
seize them.

"We defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we
defend Saudi Arabia...they do not pay us," the Republican
businessman-turned-president said during a debate with Democratic
nominee Hillary Clinton last year. "We can't defend Japan, a
behemoth, selling us cars by the million."

Such rhetoric suggested Trump viewed Japan and other allies as
more of a liability than an asset to U.S. interests.

Following Trump's election, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
swiftly arranged a meeting with him on Nov. 17 in New York, making
him the first foreign leader to hold talks with the president-elect.

Following that initial meeting, Trump reaffirmed the U.S.
commitment to the security of Japan, including the Senkakus, in
accordance with the bilateral security treaty. During talks with Abe
at the White House on Feb. 10, Trump called the alliance "the
cornerstone of peace and stability in the Pacific region" and even
thanked Japan for hosting U.S. forces.

Trump's shift to a more traditional and realistic stance toward
Japan consistent with past U.S. policy was attributable to advice
from his aides such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of
State Rex Tillerson, as well as Abe's proactive diplomacy, some
experts said.

"The overwhelming feedback from people around Mr. Trump
explained to him that Japan is a great asset for the U.S. and not the
major part of the economic and trade problem," said James Schoff, a
senior fellow for the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for
International Peace, a Washington think tank.

"He heard similar things from corporate leaders and state
governors, I believe," Schoff said. "There are some voices that
confirm his concern about Japan's trade practices, but when combined
with Mr. Abe's proactive diplomacy and initial personal rapport with
Mr. Trump, a smoother start for the alliance was realized."

While Trump's first 100 days in office has seen
steadier-than-expected alliance management, he has pulled the United
States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership -- a regional trade deal
of which Japan is a member -- and there have been signs of potential
friction between the new administration and Tokyo over economic and
trade issues.

Advocating "fair" trade, Trump has criticized countries such as
China, Japan and Germany for running large trade surpluses with the
United States, alleging they weaken their currencies to gain an
unfair trade advantage.

Similarly, senior administration officials have accused Japan of
maintaining nontariff barriers for its automobile market while they
have also criticized the country's high import tariffs for
agricultural products.

Last week, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence signaled eagerness to
start negotiations with Japan for a bilateral free trade agreement.
But Japanese officials are cautious about such a pact because it
could prompt the Trump administration to step up market-opening
pressure on Tokyo, especially in the politically sensitive farm
sector and auto trade.

With a clear vision or strategy for Trump's foreign policy not
yet in sight, Schoff said, "We might still see arguments over trade
issues, especially once Mr. Trump's team is finally in place and
other countries that struck an FTA or economic partnership agreement
with Japan begin to reap benefits, such as increased beef exports
from Australia."

More broadly, Vogel said Trump's Japan policy "remains plagued
by some of the afflictions" of his administration, citing "a chief
executive with low credibility, no guiding policy paradigm,
insufficient coordination among his top advisers and a lack of
expertise in important areas with many key positions still unfilled."

According to a new poll by the Washington Post and ABC News,
Trump's approval rating stands at 42 percent, the lowest recorded at
this stage of a presidency dating back to Dwight Eisenhower, who took
office in 1953. (April 24)