To Bond With Trump, Japan’s Abe Takes a Swing at Fairway Diplomacy
When Japanese officials talk about the two-day summit, they emphasize a Mar-a-Lago trip over a White House meeting.
Donald Trump has jarred Japan by blasting its trade practices and hinting he might yank the American security umbrella protecting the country since World War II. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hopes to parry those threats not with confrontation, but through a day bonding over golf and socializing with the two leaders’ wives. As heads of state around the world struggle to figure out how to handle the unpredictable new American president, Japan’s leader is honing a strategy of building personal ties first, fretting policy gaps second. So when Japanese officials talk about Mr. Abe’s two-day summit with Mr. Trump, they emphasize the weekend trip to his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Fla. more than the Friday meeting at the White House. “The highlight and crux of this trip is the match between the two leaders over golf,” said one person familiar with Mr. Abe’s planning. In an unusual level of mingling, the men and their wives, Melania and Akie, will fly to the president’s winter resort Friday night, and the Japanese couple will stay through Sunday morning. Messrs. Trump and Abe have rounds of golf slated both before and after lunch Saturday. It’s rare for an American president to devote that much time to one foreign leader, and to fly with one on the same plane.
“Unlike other world leaders who have chosen to criticize the president in public by name, Abe has had the attitude that he needs to explain how Japan’s agenda fits into Trump’s agenda,” said Kenneth Weinstein, president of the conservative Hudson Institute Washington think tank, who is close to the prime minister. “Abe believes he needs to develop a strong personal relationship.” Mr. Abe’s strategy is driven in part by necessity: Japanese dependence on American military support gives it little choice but to find a way to work with the American president, whoever that is. Japan’s prime minister also has more latitude to embrace the controversial new American president than his counterparts in other countries, due to an unusual stability in Japan’s domestic politics. His government’s support rate rests comfortably above 50%, his ruling party commands large majorities in parliament, and the political opposition is more fractured and weakened than the U.S. Democratic Party.
There’s also an unusual convergence in priorities and personal styles between the two men. The Trump immigration curbs stoking tensions with other American allies are a nonissue in Japan, which has long maintained much tighter immigration limits, and has taken just 55 refugees in the past two years.
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