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FOCUS: Chummy Trump visit to boost Abe’s image at home, at least for now

TOKYO — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s golf diplomacy with U.S. President Donald Trump is likely to help him convince the Japanese public he has a firm grip on bilateral relations, but the four remaining stops on Trump’s Asia tour could yet present challenges to that perception, analysts say.


The leaders looked the picture of friendship as they strolled around the golf course at Kasumigaseki Country Club just north of Tokyo on Sunday, before agreeing the following day to tighten the screws on North Korea and promote their shared values throughout the Indo-Pacific region in the face of China’s rising influence.


Trump called the relationship “extraordinary” and said Japan and the United States have never been closer.


For Abe, who tried to focus the campaign in last month’s general election on his administration’s handling of the threat from North Korea, the meeting served as an affirmation of a year’s worth of efforts to get on Trump’s good side and put Japanese interests high on his agenda.


Trump even took time to meet relatives of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s, an issue very close to Japanese hearts.


“The meeting with the abductees is very important, as it’s a Japanese interest that most other countries cannot appreciate,” said Brad Glosserman, visiting professor at Tama University’s Center for Rule-making Strategies.


Abe’s charm offensive began shortly after the U.S. presidential election, when he raced to Trump’s residence in New York to become the first foreign leader to sit down with the president-elect.


Since Trump’s inauguration in January, the two have held more than 15 official teleconferences, responding to each North Korean ballistic missile launch with a show of unity.


“Abe is playing about as well as any foreign leader has with Trump, and he deserves a great degree of credit for that,” Glosserman said.


Helping to ease concerns built up during the U.S. presidential election campaign that a Trump administration might leave Tokyo in the cold, Abe and Trump again confirmed on Monday that the United States is ready to defend Japan with the full range of its defense capabilities, including its nuclear arsenal.


While Abe also reiterated his support for the U.S. stance that all options, including military action, are “on the table” in dealing with North Korea, the leaders remained committed to a diplomatic solution.


“Japanese people want two things: an unequivocal statement that (the United States) will defend Japan’s interest as closely as its own, and a commitment by the U.S. president not to precipitously be aggressive,” Glosserman said.


While much of the Japanese public still harbors unease about Trump, he has at least become more of a known quantity through his relationship with Abe.


“In February, there was even a fear on the part of Japan because of negative remarks by then-candidate Trump on the U.S.-Japan alliance during the (U.S. presidential) campaign,” said Fumiaki Kubo, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Graduate Schools for Law and Politics.


There has been a shift in the atmosphere surrounding the two leaders between then and now, Kubo said.


In Japan, Abe took care to make Trump comfortable, right down to arranging for cheeseburgers before their golf game.


At that lunch, Abe presented Trump with white caps in the style of his red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, this time reading “Donald & Shinzo Make Alliance Even Greater.”


The visit of senior presidential adviser Ivanka Trump ahead of her father’s trip also likely helped soften the edges of his image.


All this chumminess has its dangers, however. If the Japanese public comes to see Abe as inseparably close to Trump, they may demand accountability from him in the event that the U.S. leader triggers changes in the status quo in Asia to Japan’s detriment.


Kazuhiro Maeshima, professor of contemporary U.S. politics at Sophia University in Tokyo, said the leaders clearly remained apart on economic issues, with Abe continuing to advocate for trade relations to go beyond the bilateral while Trump vowed to eliminate the U.S. trade deficit with Japan through “reciprocal trade.”


“They likely had a heated exchange on this,” Maeshima said.


And Trump may yet be holding on to cards he could use against Japan in the event that relations sour. Diplomatic sources said Saturday he has been telling Southeast Asian counterparts he cannot understand why Japan, a country of “samurai warriors,” did not shoot down North Korean missiles launched over its territory in recent months.


Trump might yet “undercut” Abe during his remaining visits to South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines, breaking with the Japanese leader on policy issues in a way that makes Abe “look isolated and uninformed,” said Tama University’s Glosserman.


Trump’s decision-making could also become hampered by fatigue toward the end of his nearly two-week Asia tour, he said.


Abe’s task now is to watch for any change in Trump’s messaging and plan how to hammer home his agenda when the two meet again in Vietnam for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

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