China’s steel overproduction and alleged intellectual property theft were discussed at the just concluded US-Japan summit, though bilateral trade and North Korea’s nuclear threat dominated the agenda, Washington’s envoy in Tokyo said on Thursday.

Joint concerns about these issues showed the strengthening “alignment” between US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, ambassador William Hagerty said.

“I think the role of China is on everyone’s minds … the world is aware of the significant overcapacity in the steel industry that has created significant problems in the United States and in other countries,” Hagerty told regional journalists in a telephone briefing from Mar-a-Lago, the Trump-owned Florida resort where the summit was held.

There were also “common interests under 301”, the US envoy said, referring to the Trump administration’s use of Section 301 of the 1974 US Trade Act to investigate China for systematically stealing intellectual property – charges Beijing strenuously denies.

“So indeed, China was part of discussions and our alignment, going back to the one word which I was asked to describe [the talks], is very strong,” Hagerty said.

On the hot topic of North Korea, the US envoy reiterated Trump’s declaration that the US would not flinch from walking away from possible summit talks with Pyongyang if the isolated regime’s peace overtures were found to be in bad faith.

“We had a broad range of discussions on this topic [which] extended beyond denuclearisation to the topic of chemical and biological weapons as well,” Hagerty said.

“The president’s intention is to see all these weapons of mass destruction eliminated from the Korean peninsula and the strategy remains the same [on the] complete, verifiable and irreversible aspects of denuclearisation,” he said.

A meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was not “an end in itself,” Hagerty added.

“The president has no intention of having a meeting for the sake of a meeting. He only intends to have a meeting if he believes it will have a constructive outcome.”

He said: “As you may have read in the news media, we have had extensive discussions including Mike Pompeo engaging directly in North Korea. This is all aimed at making certain that we have a meeting that is constructive and [moves] our agenda forward.”

Just when the TPP thought it was safe …

Trump on Wednesday said secretary of state nominee Mike Pompeo had got along “really well” when he met Kim in Pyongyang in a secret meeting over the Easter holidays that was made public only this week.

Pompeo’s meeting with Kim was part of the groundwork for the summit between Trump and Kim in which the US president will try to persuade the North Korean leader to abandon the country’s nuclear weapons drive.

Kim has in recent months showed signs of enthusiasm for a rapprochement with the US as his country – already one of the world’s poorest – reels from multiple UN-led sanctions.

Hagerty, a political appointee of Trump, meanwhile said trade between Japan and the US needed to be “on the same terms” and hinted that Washington would not sit on its hands if Tokyo’s involvement in multilateral trade deals hurt US interests.

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Abe is the chief cheerleader of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – also known as the “TPP-11” – which was signed in March.

The pact originally included the US before Trump abandoned American participation last year claiming it was skewed against the interests of the world’s largest economy.

Abe’s pro-free trade stance has seen the country also conclude negotiations for a free-trade pact with the European Union, the bloc’s biggest to date.

In contrast, as part of Trump’s “America First” protectionist agenda, Washington has threatened to leave or force renegotiations on existing multilateral trade pacts it deems unfair to US interests.

“We expect and we intend to press forward so that American firms are not [going to be] disadvantaged … we do not want to see the TPP-11 or the EU FTA [with Japan] in the near term place American firms at a disadvantage,” Hagerty said.

“Were more advantageous trade terms extended to other countries [by Japan] and not to the United States it would serve only to widen and worsen the trade deficit situation.”

During the summit the two leaders agreed to intensify bilateral trade talks, with US trade representative Robert Lighthizer and Japan’s Economic Revitalisation Minister Toshimitsu Motegi appointed the point men for the effort.

Japan is the fourth largest American trade partner, with US$200 billion worth of goods and services exchanged annually, according to Bloomberg. The US had a trade deficit of US$70 billion with Japan in 2017.

The US hopes the talks between Lighthizer and Motegi can help reduce this deficit while Japan is seeking exemptions from steel and aluminium tariffs Trump announced last month.

Japan’s concerns over the tariffs and its fears of being sidelined on the Korean issue were in part behind Abe’s repeated visits to the US and his efforts to strengthen ties with Washington, according to Wei Zongyou, Sino-US relations expert at Fudan University.

“Abe wants to show Trump that Japan and the US are on the same front in terms of intellectual property rights, that he is willing to work together with the US and other countries to exert pressure on China, while at the same time using this to maintain closer bilateral ties with the US,” said Wei. “After all, Japan is another country with a major trade deficit with the US, and Japan is worried that Trump will further hurt Japan on trade and economic issues.”

Why Shinzo Abe needs Donald Trump to stay on-message

Wei added that Abe welcomed signs the Trump administration was reconsidering its position on the TPP, as he believed the pact could help balance China’s growing economic clout in the region and could be used to “exert pressure on China”.

However, Chris Primiano, a professor of international relations professor at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, said it was too early to say whether the US and Japan would jointly pressure China regarding intellectual property.

“It’s very difficult to try to predict what Trump is going to ultimately do,” he said, referencing Trump’s shifting positions on the TPP agreement. “Given how Trump is constantly changing his mind … I don’t think we should expect anything drastic with US-Japan relations regarding trade, but then again with Trump, you never know.”