As foreign leaders have recoiled and recalibrated amid President Trump’s bluster and bullying on the world stage, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has taken another tack — offering the new American president an embrace.
Like most foreign capitals, Tokyo was shocked at Trump’s upset victory and scrambled to make sense of the outcome. Japan was one of Trump’s primary foreign policy targets during the campaign as he denounced a hefty trade imbalance and suggested that the longtime U.S. ally in Asia was freeloading off America’s security umbrella.
But Japanese diplomats had been studying Trump — reading books, news articles and even psychoanalytical essays about the New York business mogul — and trying to get to know his top deputies. On a congratulatory phone call in November, Abe invited himself to Trump Tower — and, after stopping in New York on a trip to Peru, presented Trump, an avid golfer, with a $3,755 gold-colored driver.
If the strategic charm offensive was designed to blunt Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric, the Japanese have seen some initial returns on the investment. On Friday, Abe will visit the White House for a formal summit with Trump, followed by a trip together on Air Force One, along with their wives, for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s winter retreat in Palm Beach, Fla.
White House aides said the weekend getaway, which Trump will pay for as a “personal gift” to the prime minister, is aimed at helping the two leaders get to know each other in a more relaxed setting. Trump “just really enjoys his company,” press secretary Sean Spicer said of Abe, adding that the president intends to use Mar-a-Lago for relationship building in the way other presidents have used Camp David.
“We’re going to have a round of golf, which is a great thing,” Trump said in an interview this week with Westwood One Sports Radio. “That’s the one thing about golf — you get to know somebody better on a golf course than you will over lunch.”
Abe’s determination, and early success, in forging a personal connection with Trump has contrasted with other foreign leaders. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto abruptly canceled a White House visit after Trump signed an executive action to get started on building a border wall. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull got into a testy exchange with Trump during a phone call after the American president questioned a U.S. commitment to help resettle refugees.
For Abe, the goal is to reassure Trump that the U.S.-Japan security alliance is a “win-win” relationship, Japanese officials said.
“It’s extremely important to build a trusting relationship with the president, who was chosen through an election,” Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, told reporters in Tokyo.
Though Trump’s first executive action was to make good on his campaign pledge to cancel U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) — an expansive, 12-nation trade deal on which Abe had staked significant political capital — the prime minister has maintained hope that the deal can be rekindled down the road.
In the meantime, Abe arrives in Washington with a proposal for Japanese companies to invest $150 billion in U.S. infrastructure, including high-speed rail, potentially creating 700,000 jobs in the United States.
The Japanese are “well acquainted with President Trump’s priorities, which can be summed up in three words — jobs, jobs, jobs — when it comes to the economic relationship,” a senior White House official told reporters on a conference call Thursday. The official was not authorized to speak on the record.
Abe, who has met with the head of Toyota to prepare for the trip, also will try to preempt Trump’s criticism over the lack of market access for U.S. auto companies in Japan. Japanese auto exports make up about three-quarters of Japan’s $60 billion annual trade surplus with the United States.
But the prime minister intends to explain that companies such as Toyota and Honda are not just making cars at U.S. plants but also creating huge demand for local suppliers, Japanese officials said.
On security, Trump raised alarms during the campaign by suggesting that U.S. military basing agreements in Japan and South Korea were too expensive and that those two nations should consider developing their own nuclear weapons.
But Tokyo was encouraged by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s visit last week, during which he reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defending Japanese territories under Article 5 of the security treaty. Mattis said the Trump administration recognized Japan’s administration of a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea that has also been claimed by Beijing.
Mattis “made very clear statements about the strength of the alliance, that these alliances and our commitment to them are unwavering,” the senior White House official said. “I think you’ll hear a very similar message from the president himself, and that will go a long way toward dispelling any doubts that might remain among our Japanese and Korean friends and other allies in the region.”
To some degree, Abe has spied an opening to further his own security agenda with Trump’s rise, foreign policy analysts said. The prime minister has moved to increase the role of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, whose combat missions are limited by the constitution imposed on the country by the United States after World War II.
With uncertainty over the future of the alliance, Abe and his allies have renewed prospects of raising defense spending, said Andrew Oros, author of the recently published “Japan’s Security Renaissance.”
“Trump is like the gift from heaven to Abe to push forward more on his security agenda,” said Oros, associate professor of political science and international studies at Washington College. “Abe’s goal on the security side is to show Trump that Japan is doing more.”
At home, Abe can sell his goals to a skeptical public by saying, “Trump is forcing us to do this; it’s not my fault,” Oros added.
As for the chemistry between Abe and Trump, foreign policy analysts said the Japanese put value in the type of personal warmth exhibited by President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who played catch with a baseball at Camp David in 2001, and by Ronald Reagan and Yasuhiro Nakasone, who were nicknamed “Ron-Yasu” in the 1980s.
In 1957, just 12 years after the end of World War II, Abe’s own grandfather, then-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, played golf with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at Burning Tree Club in Maryland after finishing a more formal summit meeting.
Abe, who has been busy practicing his swing, has repeatedly refused to disclose his handicap, but the Japanese media has reported that he usually shoots around 90 — about 18 shots over par.
Trump has boasted that his own handicap is in the low single digits, something the Japanese have been sure to research.
“We hear he’s a big hitter,” one Japanese diplomat said.
Fifield reported from Tokyo. Philip Rucker in Washington and Yuki Oda in Tokyo contributed to this report.