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Japan struggles to pinpoint Trump advisers

Tokyo is struggling to find out who is advising Donald Trump on Japan policy, as the president-elect prepares to meet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York this week in what will be his first meeting with a foreign leader since his victory over Hillary Clinton.

Four former US officials said the Japanese embassy had been contacting Asia experts in Washington to identify Trump advisers on Japan and Asia ahead of Thursday’s meeting. One said the contacts so far had been limited to “working with Trump Tower executives on the venue and menu”.

“I honestly think there is no real Asia team yet,” said another former official.

Most foreign embassies in Washington have faced great difficulty building contacts in the Trump team, either because they underestimated his odds of winning, or were unable to identify who is advising him ahead of his inauguration on January 20. 

One problem facing the Trump campaign and foreign capitals is that dozens of Republican foreign policy experts signed a letter this year expressing strong concern about Mr Trump. As a result, the bench of experts who would normally be considered in a Republican administration has been severely depleted.

One Trump adviser said most of the signatories had been told that they would not be considered for jobs. He said the transition team had not unveiled its list of country experts for Asia and other regions, which was leaving foreign embassies in the dark.

“The Chinese ambassador is driving everyone crazy saying “who is in charge of China?” said the person. 

Tamaki Tsukada, spokesman for the Japanese embassy, said Japan had spent months working with the Trump team “through a number of important advisers in the area of foreign and security issues, though admittedly much less intensively compared to our contacts with the Clinton team”. He stressed that the meeting between Mr Trump and Mr Abe was testament to those efforts. 

“We trust this will be the first opportunity with the president-elect to reaffirm our strong commitment to the alliance and we hope a strong mandate will emanate from the meeting setting the major agenda to hit the ground running,” said Mr Tsukada.

“We understand that a proper transition team is yet to be formed but we are confident that a strong foreign and security policy team will emerge in the coming weeks.” 

Mr Trump shocked Japan earlier this year when he said that Tokyo and Seoul should consider developing nuclear weapons to reduce the US burden in dealing with North Korea. He also said he might remove US troops from the countries unless they paid more towards their mutual defence. 

Evan Medeiros, former top Asia adviser to Mr Obama and now at Eurasia Group, said the degree that Mr Trump — who spoke with Chinese president Xi Jinping at the weekend — and his team reached out to Asian leaders would be positive. “Meeting the leaders and understanding how these relations serve US interests will be a positive force.” 

While Mr Trump has a long history of criticising Japan over its trade policies and for not spending enough on security, he will need a strong relationship with Tokyo if he is to follow through with his pledge to get tough on China on economic and security issues.

While Mrs Clinton was able to call on the advice of a long list of experienced Asia hands, the Trump campaign has had only a small team working on Asia. The main figure has been Peter Navarro, an economics professor at the University of California who has been a long critic of Chinese trade practices.

Another member is Alexander Gray who, before being given the title of senior defence adviser to the Trump campaign in August, was one of the press spokespeople for Randy Forbes, a Republican member of Congress. Mr Gray graduated from George Washington University in 2011.

Hope Hicks, spokesperson for Mr Trump, did not comment. 

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

Via FT