Abe hoping golf diplomacy will be a hit with Trump

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe playing golf in Chigasaki, Kanagawa prefecture.
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe playing golf in Chigasaki, Kanagawa prefecture.PHOTO: AFP

Japan PM heading to Washington bearing gifts including an economic plan said to help create 700,000 US jobs

TOKYO • Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads to the US this week - and to a game of golf with President Donald Trump - teeing off a drive to keep Japan's most important relationship out of the rough.

After a formal summit in Washington on Friday, the two leaders are expected to jet off to Florida for some time together on the links. A round of golf could be an opportunity to avoid the hazards that other world leaders have encountered with the unconventional US commander-in-chief.

"So far, Trump has described Japan as if it is an imagined enemy," said Professor Fumiaki Kubo, an expert on US politics at the University of Tokyo.

The idea of meeting in person "is better than fighting during a phone conversation", he said, alluding to reports of the heated call between Mr Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

He said spending time with Mr Trump would be a chance for Mr Abe to brief him about the basic facts of the Japan-US relationship.

In the more than seven decades since its defeat in World War II, Japan has become a steadfast ally of the United States. There are 47,000 US service personnel based in Japan, providing protection for their hosts and offering an invaluable forward position in East Asia for the Americans. The two countries enjoy a huge trade relationship - goods and services worth about US$200 billion (S$283 billion) pass between them every year.

But Mr Trump, in comments to business executives, has assailed Japan for allegedly devaluing the yen, grouping it with other countries he says are taking "advantage" of the US. Japanese companies have also felt his ire on Twitter, with carmaker Toyota getting an ear-bashing over a planned factory in Mexico.

Perhaps most worryingly for many Japanese, Mr Trump suggested during the presidential campaign that Tokyo was not paying its fair share for the huge US military presence in their country. Despite a professed willingness to bolster their own military, the hawkish Mr Abe and his supporters know a US drawdown would badly upend East Asia and leave Japan vulnerable.

In the immediate aftermath of Mr Trump's shock election victory last November, Mr Abe hurried to New York, becoming the first global leader to meet the president-elect.

Yet just days after taking office, Mr Trump yanked the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, in which Mr Abe had invested a lot of political capital.

Undeterred, Mr Abe has tried to keep things on an even keel. He will head to Washington bearing gifts: an economic cooperation package that reportedly includes plans to help create 700,000 US jobs through Japanese investment in American infrastructure.

Showing a commitment to US jobs - a key Trump campaign promise - is "part of Japan's efforts to explain to Trump that it is a friendly nation" not just in security but also economics, said politics don Mikitaka Masuyama at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.

But for all the economic quid pro quo, the one-on-one that time on the golf course offers could still be Mr Abe's best bet for building a stronger relationship.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 08, 2017, with the headline 'Abe hoping golf diplomacy will be a hit with Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe