Donald Trump arrived in Asia over the weekend, and pointedly made a U.S. military base his first destination. In his next step, he took on his host nation on commerce, saying U.S. trade with Japan is "unfair."
Trump has in the past blown hard at home on trade practices that he feels are unfair, only to play pleasant politics in person when meeting Asian leaders. This time around, he has taken the offensive. He will have to watch how many toes he squashes, however, in a region where the symbolism of a pleasantly passed short stay is as important as any substance.
Trump touched down on Air Force One at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo on Sunday. He could just as easily have flown into one of the commercial airports and commuted, but every step of his Asia tour will be studied for meaning, hidden and intended or not.
On Monday, he took his host nation to task, telling business leaders meeting at the home of the U.S. ambassador that trade with Japan is "not fair" as well as "not open." Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke alongside him in the joint address.
Of course, Trump ensured that trade with Japan and 10 other nations will remain "not open" by pulling the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement -- his first major move on taking office. This would have reduced tariffs on many classes of imports into Japan, and included intellectual property and services in a formidable trading bloc that does not include China.
Since then, duties on U.S. frozen beef shipments into Japan have risen to 50% from 38.5%. But the president insists it's a beneficial move not to take part in the free-trade deal.
"We will have more trade than [we] ever would have under TPP," Trump said, according to the Financial Times.
By withdrawing the United States, Trump is left attempting to pressure Japan into a bilateral trade deal. That's something that has failed to materialize in the history of U.S.-Japan trade, and isn't about to happen now.
"TPP was not the right idea," Trump insisted. "I'm sure some of you in this room disagree, but ultimately I'll be proven right."
The TPP was built around an initial U.S.-Japan deal. Having exerted so much effort on ensuring Japanese inclusion, Abe is committed to that project above any other. Deputy prime minister Taro Aso is taking part in a trade "dialogue" with Vice President Mike Pence, but don't expect too much to come out of the talk.
Trump has been attempting to re-establish his "bromance" with the Japanese head of state. After his Sunday arrival and talk to the troops, he then promptly took the golf course with Abe.
The two leaders shared a round at the Kasumigaseki Country Club, joined by the Japanese pro golfer Hideki Matsuyama, currently ranked No. 4 in the world. That returns the favor for rounds in Florida when the two men met this February, when they played alongside the "Big Easy," the South African Ernie Els.
Abe sidestepped questions on trade on Monday, praising Trump instead for his resolve in committing ot the defense alliance between Japan and the United States. There were no new business initiatives announced on Monday, and although Trump has an echelon of top executives in tow, there's unlikely to be significant nation-to-nation trade pacts out of this trip.
Abe noted that Japan is buying F-35A fighter jets from Lockheed Martin (LMT) and missile interceptors from Raytheon (RTN) -- both deals that had already been announced. With North Korea looming, "we need to improve Japan's defense capabilities in terms of quality and quantity," he said according to Bloomberg.
Trump for his part sought to drum up trade in the auto industry. He complained that Japan imports "virtually no cars" while shipping "many millions" into the United States.
"Try building your cars in the United States instead of shipping them over," Trump told Abe. "Is that rude to ask?"
It is rather rude in Asia to call out your presidential peer in person. My part of the world values "face," the concept of granting your counterpart deference and dignity despite any misgivings you may harbor.
Besides, Japanese companies do of course already create a huge amount of jobs in the United States. They have hired around 850,000 U.S. employees for their U.S. operations.
They make millions of cars in the United States. The Japanese auto-trade association says 75% of Japanese-branded cars sold in the United States are made in North America.
In fact, the only auto factory announced in the United States since Trump took office is a joint project from Toyota Motor and Mazda Motor. They plan a $1.6 billion factory to open in 2021 and are seeking incentives of as much as $1.0 billion from a shortlist of states that are potential destinations for the plant.
The project should create 4,000 jobs. But it may also lure tax breaks and other sweeteners on a par with the $1.25 billion that Tesla (TSLA) secured from Nevada when it decided in 2014 to build a battery factory in Reno. This time, Alabama, Indiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas are in the running.
Trump barged on, determined to finally win on trade. He bragged that Japan's economy is "not as good as ours."
The U.S. president was on the safest ground of his trip; Japan is the staunchest U.S. ally in Asia. He will be on less-certain footing on his next stop, Seoul, where frankly he scares much of the public. His tendency to use impolitic language has also left South Korean president Moon Jae-in in a difficult situation -- concerned that Trump may make unilateral decisions in dealing with the North.
Then it's on to Beijing, and a fascinating visit to watch with Chinese President Xi Jinping, newly empowered by having had his doctrine enshrined in the Communist constitution. I have a feeling Trump will watch his tongue very carefully there. He then attends the meeting of 21 heads of state at the APEC summit in Danang, Vietnam, heads to Hanoi, and concludes his two-week trip in the Philippines with a couple more forums.
In Tokyo, he has been on the surest ground of the longest presidential trip to Asia in a quarter century. He has sought to rebrand the region as the "Indo-Pacific," clearly looking to draw on a triumvirate of democratic U.S. allies in Japan, Australia and India to counterbalance China's rising might in Asia.
Trump said he was encouraged that the Japanese prime minister "is going to be purchasing massive amounts of military equipment, as he should," he said. "It's a lot of jobs for us, and a lot of safety for Japan."
It will be worth watching whether there are new corporate deals and investments announced on this trip. On the political front, it will be a success to cement a presence with U.S. allies in the region while fostering good relations with China -- whatever the president feels inside when he's on stage with Xi.