US President Donald Trump welcomed Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the White House Friday, greeting him with a brotherly hug ahead of high-stakes talks.
Abe was afforded a military honor guard and presidential embrace as he arrived for talks aimed at building a personal rapport with the mercurial new US president — and at heading off disputes.
“Strong hands,” Trump said as the pair clasped hands.
The Japanese prime minister is on a Washington charm offensive, hoping to mend ties that have been strained by Trump’s willingness to question long-standing defense commitments and his rejection of a trans-Pacific trade deal.
The two leaders are set to hold talks in the Oval Office, have a White House lunch and hold a press conference before jetting down to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for a day of golf on Saturday.
The sporting gambit has echoes of history. Abe’s grandfather, prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, once donned a polo shirt to golf with avid hacker 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 coexist within the rules-based order.
Early Friday, Abe told business leaders that US-Japanese commerce had been “win-win” and highlighted the hundreds of thousands of American jobs created by Japanese investments.
Most budget cars sold by Toyota and Honda are “produced in US factories by American workers,” he said, noting that US investments by Japanese firms total $411 billion, generating 840,000 jobs.
“Nobody in Japan complains that his or her job has been taken away by the Americans, because the Japanese has gained in business as well,” Abe noted.
It is unclear whether Abe will dangle new investments like high-speed rail projects that would create further jobs.
The quid pro quo for such a package 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.
On the eve of the visit, US officials confirmed that Trump’s administration was ready to offer reassurances the US would come to Japan’s defense if China were to seize the disputed Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyu in China.
And although Abe has pushed ahead with efforts to boost Japan’s military capabilities, Tokyo still relies on US security guarantees.
– ‘Asia in turmoil’ –
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 ahead of Abe’s visit during his first phone conversation as US leader with Chinese President Xi Jinping, 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.”
SOURCE: Andrew Beatty