TOKYO (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s meeting next week with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may mark the start of talks to garner Japan’s support for a push back against China’s growing influence in Asia, a security adviser to Trump said.
In the face of a rising China and a volatile North Korea, Trump’s campaign comments, including a demand that Japan pay more for the upkeep of U.S. forces on its soil, have worried Tokyo about a rift in a security alliance with Washington that has been the bedrock of its defence since World War Two.
A tougher stance against China, however, and a call for Japan to play a bigger security role through a Trump-Abe axis would fit with Abe’s hawkish policies that include allowing the military to operate more freely overseas.
Abe will meet Trump in New York on Thursday before going to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru.
Trump was looking to Japan “to play a more active role in Asia”, the adviser, who declined to be identified because he was not authorised to talk to the media, told Reuters.
Abe, he added, was “a uniquely placed figure to offer leadership in the alliance”.
Senior U.S. Navy commanders have said they would welcome joint air and sea patrols with Japan’s military in the disputed South China Sea, where the construction of island bases is extending Beijing’s influence. Tokyo has balked at direct provocation of its neighbour, choosing instead to assist nations in the region with disputes with China, such as the Philippines.
Trump, in his first 100 days in office, would end budget sequestration that mandates spending, including cuts in military outlays, and submit a budget that would fund construction of dozens of new warships, the adviser said.
It would “send a message to Beijing as well as allies Japan and South Korea and other nations that the U.S. is intent on being in (Asia) for a long time”, he said.
However, current U.S. officials warn it would be difficult to build and absorb new warships.
“Ships can’t be built overnight,” a U.S. defence official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The larger concern is how they would be funded and how they would be manned.”
The official said that even if the funds were available, it would be necessary to find shipyards and skilled workers to build the ships.
Ending sequestration is also easier said than done, requiring the approval of Congress, where the support would be needed of Democrats staunchly opposed to giving the Pentagon more money without also spending more on social programs.
Trump would also need to overcome the reservations of fiscally conscious “Freedom Caucus” Republicans, who oppose increasing government spending, including at the Pentagon.
The Trump adviser said the president-elect would want to allay any “unfounded” concerns Abe may have and affirm his commitment to their countries’ security alliance. “This is going to be a respectful conversation.”
Potential friction between the two countries, however, exists over how much Tokyo pays for the deployment of U.S. forces in Japan. Japan says the funding it provides, which covers three quarters of the cost, is enough.
“We are bearing the burden for what we should bear,” Japanese Minister of Defence Tomomi Inada told reporters in Tokyo on Friday, Kyodo news reported.
Abe knows little about Trump, and in New York is likely to want to begin building a relationship that could yield a common world view, a person who knows the prime minister said.
“He has proven to be able to get along with fairly edgy people,” he said.
Reporting by Tim Kelly; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali, Patricia Zengerle and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and Chizu Nomiyama