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Leaders scramble for window into Trump’s White House

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attends a news conference at his official residence in Tokyo on June 1, 2016.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Coming into the watershed U.S. election, most foreign governments were expecting Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump and continue on roughly the same policy trajectory as the Obama administration. Now, presidents and prime ministers are scrambling for face-time with a victor about whom they know little, beyond his bellicose declarations and intemperate outbursts on the campaign trail.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe appears to be at the head of a long line of leaders eager to size up the president-elect in person. The two should have plenty to talk about at a meeting scheduled for Thursday, when both will be in New York.

During the nastiest presidential campaign in recent memory, Mr. Trump raised anxiety levels in Japan, which was the target of some of the pointed attacks he levelled at important U.S. trading partners and allies.

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In Japan's case, his main preoccupation is the cost of safeguarding that country's security under a decades-old treaty. Mr. Trump wants Tokyo to take on more of that task itself and fork out more cash to cover the expense of maintaining U.S. military bases, troops and nuclear firepower in the region. Japan pays about 75 per cent of the cost.

"We are bearing the burden for what we should bear," Japan's hawkish rookie Defence Minister, Tomomi Inada, told reporters Friday. She once mused that Japan should possess its own nuclear capability, which Mr. Trump seems to think might be a good idea.

"You know we have a treaty with Japan, where if Japan is attacked, we have to use the full force and might of the United States," Mr. Trump told Iowa voters in August. "If we're attacked, Japan doesn't have to do anything. They can sit home and watch Sony television, okay?"

He may be surprised to learn that Mr. Abe has been aggressively increasing the military's budget and would like nothing better than to expand its role, which is strictly limited under the country's pacifist postwar constitution.

The Prime Minister has been pressing for its revision, but faces strong public opposition.

Mr. Trump also revived an older complaint about trade, namely that Japan relies on currency manipulation and other underhanded tactics to gain a huge advantage over the United States.

Lumping Japan in with Mexico and China, the two biggest objects of his export ire, Mr. Trump declared during a Republican primary debate last March that "we are getting absolutely crushed on trade."

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But in the course of a 20-minute phone call from Mr. Abe, Mr. Trump reportedly lauded the Japanese leader for his efforts to fix the economy, including a massive dose of the sort of fiscal stimulus favoured by the president-elect to boost U.S. growth. (Abenomics, as the economic stimulus and reform plan has been dubbed, hasn't worked particularly well, but who wants to dwell on the negatives during a congratulatory conversation?)

Mr. Abe reminded Mr. Trump that "a strong Japan-U.S. alliance is an indispensable presence to prop up peace and stability of the region," Japanese officials told reporters.

The two have a shared interest in countering China's widening influence in Asia, at least partly through improving relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia. Mr. Abe has proposed pouring Japanese capital into energy and infrastructure deals in Russia's Far East. Mr. Trump has made no secret of his admiration for Mr. Putin and wants to meet him before his inauguration.

One thorny subject that's bound to affect Japanese-U.S. relations is Mr. Trump's strident opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 12-country free-trade deal that is a centrepiece of Mr. Abe's economic strategy and which previously enjoyed the support of Republican leaders in Congress.

Mr. Trump's protectionist rants have revived fears of a return to Japan-bashing, which was all the rage in the 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, Japanese electronics, vehicle, appliance and other exporters rode a cheap currency, high quality and more efficient production to dominant global positions, often at the expense of U.S. rivals that lacked similar access to the Japanese market.

Facing the threat of stiff U.S. sanctions on auto shipments, Tokyo reached a deal in 1995 to voluntarily limit exports. It was an easy decision. Its major car makers had already shifted considerable production to new plants in the United States and Canada. And Japan was in the midst of an economic tailspin from which it has yet to recover.

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Japanese non-tariff barriers remain a sticking point, something the TPP was intended to address.

"We welcome change in the U.S., but we don't want to see backsliding," Yoshimitsu Kobayashi, chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, said during a panel discussion on Friday in Tokyo sponsored by The Nikkei publication group.

"We will be watching to see to what extent the people that Mr. Trump surrounds himself with can change his views on free trade and other aspects of economic globalization."

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