President Donald Trump has reassured Japan’s leader that the US will defend its close ally after meeting him with a hug at the White House.
The president said on Friday after meeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that he wants to bring the post-Second World War alliance with Japan “even closer”.
He has recently also patched up ties with China and together the pronouncements illustrate a shift to a more mainstream stance on policy towards Asia.
While such statements are ritual after these types of meetings, from Mr Trump they are sure to calm anxieties that he has stoked by demanding that America’s partners pay more for their own defence.
Mr Abe, a nationalist adept at forging relationships with self-styled strongmen overseas, was the only world leader to meet the Republican before his inauguration. He is now the second to do so since he took office.
Flattering the billionaire businessman, Mr Abe said he would welcome the United States becoming “even greater”.
He also invited Mr Trump to visit Japan this year and the president accepted, according to a joint statement.
Other leaders of America’s closest neighbours and allies, such as Mexico, Britain and Australia, have been singed by their encounters with Mr Trump. But the appearances here were positive.
After a working lunch on economic issues, the two boarded Air Force One with their wives for a trip to Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. The pair are scheduled to play golf.
Their Oval Office meeting came hours after Mr Trump reaffirmed Washington’s long-standing “one China” policy in a call with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
That statement will similarly ease anxieties in East Asia after earlier suggestions that Mr Trump might use Taiwan as leverage in trade, security and other negotiations.
Although Japan is a historic rival of China, Mr Trump said that his long and “warm” conversation with Mr Xi was good for Tokyo.
“I believe that will all work out very well for everybody, China, Japan, the United States and everybody in the region,” he said at a joint news conference with Mr Abe.
Stepping carefully into Japan’s longstanding territorial dispute with China over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, Mr Trump said the US is committed to the security of Japan and all areas under its administrative control.
The implication was that the US-Japan defence treaty covers the disputed islands, which Japan calls the Senkaku but China the Diaoyu.
Beijing opposes such statements, but Mr Trump’s wording allowed for some diplomatic wiggle room. The joint statement released later was more explicit in spelling out the US commitment.
Mr Trump thanked Japan for hosting nearly 50,000 American troops, which also serve as a counterweight to China’s increased regional influence.
He said freedom of navigation and dealing with North Korea’s missile and nuclear threats are a “very high priority”.
There was less agreement on economics.
One of Trump’s first actions as president was to withdraw the US from a 12-nation, trans-Pacific trade agreement that was negotiated by the previous administration and strongly supported by Tokyo.
Diverting from his stance that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is bad for America, Mr Abe stressed the importance of a “free and fair common set of rules” for trade among the world’s most dynamic economies.
“That was the purpose of TPP. That importance has not changed,” he said through an interpreter.
Both leaders held out the possibility of a future bilateral US-Japanese deal.