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Trump opens Asia trip talking tough in campaign-style rally

Trump kicked off an extensive swing through Asia with a campaign-style rally on Sunday with American troops in Japan

Julie Hirschfeld Davis | NYT 

Donald Trump, Trump
Donald Trump

President Trump kicked off an extensive swing through Asia with a campaign-style rally on Sunday with American troops in Japan, as he looked toward a lengthy trip likely to be dominated by talks on confronting the nuclear threat from North Korea.

In a speech after Air Force One landed at Yokota Air Base in Tokyo on a crisp, sunny morning, Mr. Trump never mentioned Pyongyang by name. Sounding a militaristic tone, he sought to project toughness in the face of global challenges, saying the United States armed forces stood ready to defend itself and its allies and “fight to overpower” its adversaries.

“No one — no dictator, no regime and no nation — should underestimate, ever, American resolve,” Mr. Trump said, having shed his suit jacket for a leather bomber jacket as he addressed hundreds of fatigues-clad women and men. “You are the greatest threat to tyrants and dictators who seek to prey on the innocent.”

Breaking with tradition for American presidents on foreign soil, Mr. Trump used his speech to promote his domestic record with a distinct political edge, asserting that the economy and military were far better off since he became president.

“We are back home starting to do, I will tell you — and you’re reading, and you’re seeing — really, really well,” Mr. Trump told the troops, noting that the stock market has surged and unemployment has been low, with almost two million jobs added “since a very, very special day — it’s called Election Day.”

“We’ve dealt ISIS one brutal defeat after another, and it’s about time,” he added, then noting that he had proposed increases in the defense budget. “That’s a lot different than in the past.”

On Monday morning, Mr. Trump spoke to Japanese and American business executives, striking familiar themes about the success of his economic polices and issuing a call for new a trade relationship with Japan.

“We want fair and open trade,” Mr. Trump declared, “but right now, our trade with is Japan is not fair and it’s not open.” He predicted the United States and Japan would be able to negotiate a new deal that would greatly expand trade.

On his way to Japan, Mr. Trump told reporters he would probably meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia next week to discuss the North Korean threat, part of his 12-day, five-country tour through Asia that is also likely to focus heavily on trade.

White House officials had said that a meeting by Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin — who last held face-to-face talks in Hamburg, Germany, in July — was a possibility on the sideline of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.

“We want Putin’s help on North Korea,” Mr. Trump said.

The White House also signaled that Mr. Trump could decide on this trip to designate North Korea a state sponsor of terrorism, a largely symbolic move since it is already among the world’s most heavily sanctioned countries. Still, the gesture would reinforce the administration’s efforts to cast the North as a global pariah.

Rex W. Tillerson, the secretary of state, and other administration officials are looking at the prospect “very closely,” a senior White House official told reporters in Tokyo on Sunday, and a decision will come “very soon.”

The president used his speech on Sunday to call for building a “free and open Indo-Pacific” region, a new approach to Asia that is likely to be seen by China as a challenge. The idea, first proposed by the Japanese and adopted in recent days by Mr. Tillerson, envisions the United States strengthening ties with three other democracies in the region — Japan, Australia and India — to contain a rising China.

“We will seek new opportunities for cooperation and commerce, and we will partner with friends and allies to pursue a free and open Indo-Pacific region,” Mr. Trump said. “We will seek free fair and reciprocal trade.”

Mr. Trump’s trip to the continent will be the longest by an American president in more than 25 years, with additional stops in South Korea, China and the Philippines. Ahead of what his advisers called a grueling schedule of meetings and summits, the president got a chance to relax by playing golf on Sunday afternoon with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

The outing was reciprocation for rounds that Mr. Trump hosted in Jupiter, Fla. and nearby West Palm Beach in February for Mr. Abe and Ernie Els, once the world’s top golfer. For Sunday’s round, Mr. Abe invited Hideki Matsuyama, a Japanese golfer ranked fourth in the world. Before the game, the Japanese prime minister presented Mr. Trump with white caps in the style of the president’s trademark red “Make America Great Again” trucker hats; Mr. Abe’s were emblazoned in gold: “Donald and Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater.”

“Prime Minister Abe is called a trainer of wild animals,” said Fumio Hirai, a commentator on a morning news show on Fuji TV. “And the world is watching how he does with President Trump.”

The already extensive trip grew longer still on Friday when Mr. Trump abruptly announced to reporters that he would attend the East Asia Summit in Manila on Nov. 14, adding a day to his travels.

“It is grueling, they tell me, but fortunately, historically that has not been a problem for me,” Mr. Trump said. “If I don’t stay fresh, you’ll be the first to tell me. I’ll stay fresh.”

White House officials have framed the trip as a chance for Mr. Trump to showcase his warm relationships with world leaders including Mr. Abe and President Xi Jinping of China, as well as to demand trade deals more favorable to the United States after his decision to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But it will also highlight the uncertainty in the region and around the world about what to expect from the Trump administration, and the degree to which major powers are charting their own course in the absence of clear signals from the United States.

Mr. Trump also makes the trip hobbled by new questions about the Russia investigation back in Washington, sharpened in recent days by revelations that his aides sought to arrange meetings between him and Mr. Putin during the campaign. In contrast, Mr. Abe and Mr. Xi are newly empowered, with their countries handing them sweeping mandates.

Mr. Trump denied being at a disadvantage when reporters noted on Sunday that Mr. Xi was in a particularly powerful position.

“Excuse me, so am I,” Mr. Trump said, citing stock market gains and low unemployment in the United States, and asserting that “ISIS is virtually defeated in the Middle East.”

“We are coming off some of the strongest numbers we’ve ever had, and he knows that and he respects that,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Xi. “We’re going in with tremendous strength.”

Mr. Trump’s ability to stay on message during a lengthy and physically demanding trip will most likely be tested, with many opportunities for gaffes or intemperate language.

On Sunday, North Korea’s state media accused Mr. Trump of provoking the country with “foolish remarks” and said “the only and one way for checking his rash act is to tame him with absolute physical power.” The commentary in North Korea’s state-run newspaper Rodong Sinmun added: “We warn Trump’s coteries once again. If they want to avoid ruin, do not make reckless remarks.”

Asked last week whether the president — who likes to refer to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, as “Little Rocket Man” and spoke about raining “fire and fury” on his country — would seek to temper his rhetoric while he traveled through the region, his national security adviser was frank.

“The president will use whatever language he wants to use, obviously,” Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster told reporters. “I don’t think the president really modulates his language — have you noticed him do that?” 
©2017 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Mon, November 06 2017. 10:11 IST
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