President Donald Trump touched down in Japan late Saturday ahead of a 13-day trek through Asia.
During the first set of remarks on his five-nation tour, Trump avoided the incendiary, bellicose rhetoric that has often defined his public stance about the North Korean threat.
But he nevertheless sent a clear message to North Korea and the rest of the region that American military might and strong US alliances in the region remain a critical deterrent during an appearance at a joint US-Japanese military base just outside of Tokyo.
“Our brave warriors are the last bulwark against threats to the dreams of people in America and Japan and all across the world,” Trump said. “You are the greatest hope for people who desire to live in freedom and harmony and you are the greatest threat to tyrants and dictators who seek to prey on the innocent.”
Trading in his suit jacket for a flight jacket moments after taking the stage at Yokota Air Base, Trump praised the US-Japan military alliance, thanked US troops for keeping “us all safe” and talked up US military prowess in the region.
The remarks served to help set the tone for the President’s Asian tour that will take him next to South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines for nearly two weeks of powerhouse diplomacy, much of which will focus on rallying other regional powers to step up their efforts to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Trump’s remarks were devoid the kinds of direct threats he has previously aimed at the North Korean regime, with the President instead choosing to focus on the US-Japanese alliance and the peaceful aims of US military might in the region.
“You put hope in every soul that yearns for peace,” Trump told the assembled troops.
Air Force One landed at the US-controlled Yokota Air Base outside Tokyo at about 9:37 p.m. ET Saturday (10:37 a.m. Sunday local time). Trump addressed American servicemen and women stationed at the facility before beginning his official visit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
On his first swing through a continent gripped with tension over a nuclear standoff on its eastern edge, Trump will carry out high-stakes talks with the leaders of Japan, South Korea, and China, and attend days of summits in Vietnam and the Philippines.
Before arriving in Japan, Trump told reporters aboard Air Force One that he expects to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and hopes to enlist his help in changing North Korea’s behavior. He will likely meet with Putin on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam.
“I think it’s expected that we’ll meet. We want Putin’s help on North Korea,” he told reporters. Trump had previously said a meeting with Putin was possible.
It’s a slog of a presidential trip, one that became longer this week after Trump announced he would spend an extra day in Manila to attend the East Asia Summit. The last US President to spend this long in Asia was George H.W. Bush in 1992 — and he ended the trip by vomiting in the Japanese prime minister’s lap.
On the eight-hour flight from Hawaii, however, Trump dismissed concerns about the length of his trip.
“It is grueling, they tell me. But fortunately, historically that has not been a problem for me,” Trump said. “I’ll let you know if I don’t stay fresh. If I don’t stay fresh, you’ll be the first to tell me.”
At his first stop here in Tokyo, Trump enjoyed a round of golf and a steak dinner with Abe — one of his closest foreign counterparts — before sitting down for formal talks. The men ate hamburgers inside the clubhouse at Kasumigaseki Country Club overlooking the green before hitting the links.
Before the food was set down, the two men autographed white baseball caps, in the style of Trump’s campaign hats, emblazoned with the worlds “Donald & Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater.”
Trump and Abe are expected to confer about North Korea, an area where they are largely in alignment. Abe hopes to adopt a tougher military stance against Pyongyang, altering a decades-long pacifist approach.
The two are also expected to discuss trade, though they don’t see eye-to-eye on the issue. Trump has withdrawn the US from the Trans Pacific Partnership, a decision the Abe has criticized.
Hopes on the line
Escaping scandal fever in Washington after indictments of his campaign associates, Trump hopes an authoritative tour through five Asian capitals can help him rise above the controversy. But officials here, and even some of Trump’s own aides, worry the Russia cloud could lead the unpredictable and bombastic US leader to lash out.
As he flew from Washington to an overnight stop in Hawaii, Trump demonstrated the Russia probe was still not far from mind, unleashing a flow of invective on Twitter accusing his own Justice Department of ignoring possible collusion by his former Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
It was an inauspicious start to a trip meant to consolidate support in Asia for his combative approach to North Korea and to lay out an assertive approach to negotiate trade agreements.
On his longest foreign swing to date, Trump hopes to convince Asian leaders to put up a united front against Pyongyang, which has scaled up its provocations since Trump took office.
The friendliest stop is likely to be the first here in Japan, where Trump finds a leader eager to fuel a budding friendship. South Korea’s new leader has shown more of a willingness to break with the US President, chastising some of his bellicose rhetoric about North Korea while encouraging talks with Pyongyang.
And while he’s developed friendly ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping, their talks are fraught after Trump lambasted China ceaselessly on the campaign trail for its trade practices. So far, though, he hasn’t taken action to label Beijing a currency manipulator.
At a moment of political weakness amid the Russia investigation, he faces leaders who themselves are enjoying new political muscle. In Japan, Abe saw decisive wins for his party in snap elections last month, and Xi emerged from a critical Communist Party Congress having consolidated power in historic fashion.
That’s left Trump anxious about his negotiating power as the FBI and congressional investigators continue probing his campaign’s ties to Russia. While Trump is abroad, the office led by special counsel Robert Mueller is expected to interview key White House aides as part of its investigation.
While Trump may divert attention through his high-level diplomacy, the issue is likely to arise in dramatic fashion in Vietnam, where he will face Putin for only the second time face-to-face.