Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Donald Trump’s White House for the first time Friday, hoping to build a personal rapport with the mercurial new US president.
With US-Japanese ties strained by Trump’s rejection of a trans-Pacific trade deal and willingness to put long-standing defense commitments into question, Abe will take a personal approach.
The pair are set to hold talks at the White House before jetting down to Trump’s Florida home for a day of golf.
Abe’s sporting gambit has historical echoes. His grandfather, prime minister Nobusuke Kishi once golfed with president Dwight Eisenhower.
“That’s the one thing about golf, you get to know somebody better on a golf course than you will over lunch,” Trump recently told a radio interviewer.
Substantively, the meetings will be a test of whether Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy can take place within the rules-based order.
Abe is expected to dangle proposals to create hundreds of thousands of US jobs through high-speed rail projects and with private cash from Japanese companies.
The quid pro quo would be a commitment to shared defense and avoiding a race-to-the-bottom trade war.
Plans under consideration in the White House propose a substantial hike of import tariffs that could have a serious impact on Japanese manufacturers.
And although Abe has pushed ahead with efforts to boost Japan’s military capabilities, Tokyo still relies on US security guarantees.
– ‘Asia in turmoil’ –
“I want to hold a summit that can send a message saying the Japan-US alliance will strengthen further with President Trump,” Abe told reporters at the airport before departing.
“We will develop the two countries’ economies even more based on free and fair rules,” he added, stressing that he wants to “confirm that” with Trump at the meeting.
Trump has cast himself as a change agent willing to rip up existing agreements and relationships to put “America first”.
While his defense secretary has traveled to Japan to send reassuring messages about the durability of the relationship, Trump has showed little inclination to play nice.
Inside the White House, foreign policy is sometimes treated as little more than a tool to frame Trump’s image at home.
“The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about the relationship thus far,” said Michael Green of the Center for International and Strategic Studies.
“For Abe, a strong relationship with the United States is critical given the threat from North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs and China’s rise.”
On the issue of China, however, Abe and Trump may find common cause.
Tokyo was often concerned about president Barack Obama’s willingness to work with Beijing. Trump is expected to take a tougher line.
Still, he sought to reassure China on the eve of Abe’s visit during his first phone conversation as US leader with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday evening, when he said Washington would respect the “One China” policy.
But Trump’s previous harsh criticism of Beijing portends rocky times ahead.
“The US and Japan face an Asia in turmoil and perhaps the most dangerous global security environment since the end of the Cold War,” said Kenneth Weinstein and Arthur Herman of the Hudson Institute.
“Asian security challenges alone include a rogue North Korea with a growing nuclear capacity to threaten both Japan and the US, and Chinese territorial assertiveness in the East and South China Seas.”