Trump, Abe friendship remains on par
Posted November 3, 2017 11:46 p.m. EDT
TOKYO (CNN) — They've chatted on the phone around 16 times, schmoozed atop white silk couches in a Trump Tower duplex and huddled during an open-air security confab on the patio of Mar-a-Lago.
This weekend, President Donald Trump and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, bring their bromance to Japan, the first stop on Trump's maiden swing through Asia that comes as anxiety over North Korea reaches fever pitch.
Their first appointment: a round of golf outside Tokyo, arranged by Abe to ease Trump gently into his diplomatic marathon. The men will join Hideki Matsuyama, a rising star on the professional circuit, on an exclusive private course near this busting capital city.
That Abe is treating Trump to a round of golf shortly after his arrival in Asia is not an accident: the relationship between the two men has emerged as the strongest bilateral friendship of Trump's nine-month-old presidency. An avid golfer who plays most weekends in the United States, Trump will begin his 13-day slog through Asia with at least some semblance of familiarity.
The welcome party is set to continue into the evening when Abe and Trump dine out with their wives -- not at one of Tokyo's renowned sushi palaces, but at a steakhouse where Trump can savor his preferred well-done cut of beef, maybe with a side of ketchup.
As tensions escalate over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Trump hasn't found as willing a counterpart as Abe, with whom he confers after nearly ever provocation from Pyongyang. And Abe hasn't been shy in developing Trump as a global partner, making early contact with a leader known for his unpredictability. He was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after he was elected a year ago.
The bonhomie was on display earlier this autumn when the two men met for talks on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
"It's wonderful to have Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- doing a wonderful job, doing a great job for the people of Japan," Trump said. "The relationship has never been closer, I believe, with Japan and the United States, and it will continue onward that way."
Ahead of the same meeting, Abe made reference to Trump as "Donald" twice -- a notable level of informality for a protocol-bound Asian leader.
In other Asian capitals, Trump's relationships aren't as chummy. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has expressed concerns over Trump's bellicose threats toward North Korea and his frank dismissals of talks with the Kim Jong Un's regime. And while Chinese President Xi Jinping has proven willing to adopt a tougher line against North Korea, trade disputes and differences over security policy have complicated his relationship with Trump.
That leaves Abe as Trump's closest partner in Asia, one who has meticulously worked to foster warm ties with a US leader known more for his temper than his friendships. The strategy is not without risks: the Japanese public is wary of stoking a nuclear standoff with North Korea, and Trump remains generally unpopular in most countries.
Those factors, however, have not prevented Abe from proceeding full-throttle in his mission of befriendship. After North Korea conduced a massive underground nuclear test earlier this year, the two men consulted twice by phone before Trump contacted South Korea's Moon.
Abe is hoping to maintain a consistent discourse with Trump to avoid miscommunication, according to people familiar with his strategy in dealing with the erratic Trump. By speaking on a regular basis, Abe is working to avert the chance for surprises.
On North Korea, Trump and his team of national security aides are largely on the same page as Abe, a fellow conservative who wants to increase Japanese military power to better confront the nuclear threat. In recent elections, Abe's party won by a decisive margin, increasing the likelihood he'll be serving as prime minister for years to come.
"From the point of view of Abe administration, the personal chemistry that exists between the two leaders is seen as an asset. They think that they're seeing it pay off," said Mireya Solís, a co-director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "There's a big white-glove communication of phone calls that do well. You don't have these hiccups that happen in other presidential calls."
"I think that there's an understanding that this American President likes can-do leaders," Solís said. "And they feel that Prime Minister Abe is coming to this meeting in a very strong position because he actually faces the work and is (set) to become the longest-ever prime minister in Japan."
At the same time, however, Abe's political emboldenment comes as Trump finds himself politically hamstrung at home by the controversy over his campaign's ties to Russia. Trump has expressed worries that his weakened political standing may hurt his ability to negotiate with Asian leaders on his first trip here.
And while Trump and Abe have found they agree on most areas, they don't see eye-to-eye on trade. One of Trump's first acts as President was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the landmark trade pact negotiated by Obama. Abe, meanwhile, kept Japan a party to the accord, and has criticized Trump for his decision to renege on the deal.
Those topics are likely to arise when Trump and Abe sit for formal talks on the second day of Trump's visit to Tokyo this weekend. And while they might arise on the golf course as well, Abe hopes the chirpy, verdant surroundings of the Kasumigaseki Country Club -- which only agreed to accept women members in March -- can ease whatever disagreements may arise.
It's not the first time Abe has ventured out with Trump on a golf course. During his visit to Florida in February, which featured an unusual security discussion on the dining patio at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, the men played a round at one of clubs that Trump owns in the West Palm Beach area.
Trump and Abe have fostered the type of international partnership that American presidents have long sought as they confront global flash-points. Ronald Reagan had Margaret Thatcher. Barack Obama had Angela Merkel, though they never played golf together (Obama did enjoy a golf outing in the Hertfordshire countryside with then-British Prime Minister David Cameron).
And Abe is not the first Japanese prime minister to enjoy a round of golf with an American president. Abe's grandfather Nobusuke Kishi swang clubs with Dwight Eisenhower during a visit to Washington in 1957 in a session that one news outlet hailed a "triumph of diplomacy."
Whether the round this weekend results in similar proclamations remains to be seen.