DeSantis, an Enigma on Foreign Policy, Praises U.S.-Japan Ties in Tokyo

On his first overseas trip since 2019, Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida and presumptive Republican presidential candidate, met with the Japanese prime minister on Monday and said he hoped the United States would stand by Japan “every step of the way” as it bolstered its defenses to meet rising challenges from North Korea and China.

“I’m a big supporter of the U.S.- Japan alliance,” Mr. DeSantis, standing beside his wife, Casey DeSantis, said in brief remarks to reporters in Tokyo after a 30-minute meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. “I think Japan’s been a heck of an ally for our country, and I think a strong Japan is good for America, and I think a strong America is good for Japan.”

Mr. DeSantis’s comments appeared to depart from the stance taken by Donald J. Trump, the current front-runner for the Republican nomination. Before becoming president in 2017, Mr. Trump attacked Japan over its trade policy and accused it of exploiting its military alliance with the United States to protect itself at low risk and minimal cost.

Mr. DeSantis has not yet announced a presidential campaign but is widely expected to run, even as his prospects of winning the primary have seemed to dim in recent months. Mr. Trump, who once trailed Mr. DeSantis in some polls, is now firmly ahead and is consolidating endorsements from Florida’s congressional delegation.

For an American governor to have a meeting with the Japanese prime minister — especially so close to the Group of 7 summit being held next month in Hiroshima — is considered unusual. Mr. DeSantis’s trip offered him a chance to buff up his foreign policy credentials, which are in need of positive headlines.

After a recent foray into foreign policy matters, Mr. DeSantis found himself facing major criticism from fellow Republicans, who attacked him for calling Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine a “territorial dispute” that was not a vital U.S. national security interest. (He quickly backtracked.)

While Mr. DeSantis has not spoken comprehensively about his foreign policy philosophy, some of his views emerged during his time in the House, including a stint on the Foreign Affairs Committee. Former colleagues there described him as expressing a hard-nosed and narrow view of how the United States should wield power abroad, leaving him difficult to classify as either a hawk or an isolationist.

On Monday, Mr. DeSantis applauded Japan’s recent efforts to double its military spending to eventually approach 2 percent of the country’s economic output. He pointed to threats in the region that he said included “not only the C.C.P. but also Kim Jong-un,” a reference to the Chinese Communist Party and the leader of North Korea.

Mr. DeSantis called for more military investment by the United States, too. “If you look at our stockpiles and some of the things that have happened over the last few years, there’s a lot of room for improvement on our end as well,” he said.

Given his history, Mr. DeSantis’s remarks in Tokyo will be closely parsed. In both Japan and South Korea, “there is great concern about possible outcomes of the U.S. election,” said Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow for Northeast Asia at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“They are concerned about an isolationist U.S. president who can continue or resume the previous president’s threats to withdraw troops from Japan and South Korea,” he said.

Mr. Klingner added that Japan’s recent move to strengthen its own defenses was “obviously a reaction to the deteriorating security situation in China and North Korea, but also the concern that Japan might be seen as a free-riding ally if it didn’t augment its security posture.”

On trade, Mr. DeSantis said he was seeking to establish new economic ties between Florida and Japan, the state’s seventh-largest trading partner. He said that he would be meeting with officials from Japan’s two largest airlines to encourage them to establish direct flights from Tokyo to Florida.

“We’ve got over 100 Japanese companies” in Florida, Mr. DeSantis told reporters, “but if you look at, like, Atlanta in Georgia, they’ve got 400 or 500 Japanese companies, and I think a large part of the reason is they have a direct flight into Atlanta. So that would be really good, I think, to deepen our economic ties if we could get direct transportation.”

Mr. DeSantis’s trip, which will include stops in Seoul, Israel and London, is being paid for by Enterprise Florida, the state’s public-private economic development agency. Private donations to the agency usually provide the funding for travel costs.

Foreign trade has not appeared to be a priority for the governor this year. His legislative agenda focused on red meat for his conservative base, including further restricting abortion, expanding gun rights and banning diversity and equity programs at state universities. He did not mention foreign trade in his State of the State address last month.

Mr. DeSantis departed the state two days after asking the Biden administration to declare a major disaster in Broward County, following catastrophic flooding that caused a severe gasoline shortage in South Florida.

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