Good friends with Abe - but equal partners?

During his visit to Japan, US President Donald Trump flaunted his close friendship with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who lavished him with caps emblazoned with "Donald and Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater" and a wagyu dinner.

They bonded over golf, exchanging fist bumps and high fives, and chowed down US beef burgers.

Much has been made about the significance of their interaction, and both countries came away confident in their security alliance over issues such as North Korea and the Indo-Pacific. In this regard, there was "no surprise", Dr Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University said, adding: "It was quite natural the summit would go smoothly."

The two men, on first-name terms, rhapsodised over their tight bond, which analysts say may help them bridge difficult issues.

However, moments in their joint press conference gave critics some pause, as these betrayed the leaders' divergent views on a variety of issues, with Mr Abe offering nuanced responses in contrast to Mr Trump's typical bluster.

On dealing with North Korea, for instance, Mr Trump urged Japan to buy more US weaponry that will allow it to "shoot down North Korean missiles from the sky". On his part, Mr Abe said any interception will be "closely coordinated with the US".

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While Japan has stressed that it is an equal partner with the US in their bilateral alliance, critics wonder if Mr Trump instead regards Japan as subservient to the US. The US leader implied in a put-down that the Japanese economy is second fiddle to the US', and even interjected during a question meant for Mr Abe about Japan's national security.

"The Japanese people are thriving, your cities are vibrant and you've built one of the world's most powerful economies. I don't know if it's as good as ours," said Mr Trump. Then turning to Mr Abe, he added: "I think not, okay? And we're going to try to keep it that way. But you'll be second."

Ms Shihoko Goto, who studies North-east Asia issues at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, said while the leaders managed to set the tone for the alliance, "their love of golf is a superficial connection that can evaporate quickly". "Mr Trump's core belief surfaced when he said the US was No. 1, while Japan could be No. 2," she said.

But Mr Abe has some leverage when it comes to buying US arms, according to Ms Goto.

"It would give him greater impetus for constitutional reform, which is a prerequisite for Japan to enhance its military capabilities."


Doubt over offer of help

Toned-down rhetoric

Mending ties, but at a cost

Highlights of the trip    

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 16, 2017, with the headline 'Good friends with Abe - but equal partners?'. Subscribe