Japan PM Shinzo Abe hopes to revive 'bromance' with US President Donald Trump in Florida talks

US President Donald Trump "fist bumps" Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as they play golf at the Kasumigaseki Country Club in Kawagoe, Japan, on Nov 5, 2017. PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Their bromance had been built on golf, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will be hoping that it is par for the course that a golf resort summit with United States President Donald Trump will rekindle a friendship that, by many accounts, has dimmed.

Mr Abe will visit the US from April 17 to 20 for talks with Mr Trump, both Tokyo and Washington announced on Monday (April 2).

Japan, alarmed at how quickly it fell by the wayside in the regional diplomatic calculus over North Korea, had requested the summit.

Adding to Tokyo's anxiety was the sense of betrayal over its ignominous omission from a list of regions that won exemptions from US tariffs on steel and aluminium.

"Events have been evolving very rapidly with Japan out of the loop, and it is putting the Japan government in a very embarrassing and compromising situation," Kobe University political scientist Tosh Minohara told The Straits Times.

So it came as no surprise that Japan chose as the summit venue Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where both men teed off over 27 holes when they met in February last year.

"That Japan requested a summit be held in Florida, to highlight the Abe-Trump friendship if nothing else comes about, speaks volumes about the grim prospects they see for the talks," the Nikkei Asian Review said pithily in an analysis on Tuesday (April 3).

North Korea and trade will be the two key issues at the talks, while Mr Abe will also hope to use the chance to get to know Mr Trump's new inner circle, including Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo.

As it stands, Japan is anxious that it is being left behind in the rapid progress over North Korea, and that it will not have a seat at the table to shape upcoming developments.

Japan's Kyodo News Agency reported on Monday that a four-way meeting involving the US, China and the two Koreas had been mooted by Chinese President Xi Jinping when he met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un last week.

Mr Abe is also concerned that Mr Trump will prioritise US domestic interests and neglect its alliance with Japan at his summit with Mr Kim next month.

He will want the US leader to ensure that North Korea will commit to a total disarmament of its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes - and not strike a compromise for Pyongyang to give up on inter-continental ballistic missile technology but retain the short- and medium-range missiles which will put Japan in its crosshairs.

Mr Abe will urge Mr Trump to discuss with Mr Kim a resolution to North Korea's systematic abduction of Japanese citizens in the 1970s and 1980s, in what is a major political issue domestically. A big win for Mr Abe on North Korea, analysts said, will also boost his domestic approval ratings that have plunged over a document forgery scandal.

Sasakawa Peace Foundation research fellow Ippeita Nishida told The Straits Times: "The abduction card is still a valuable diplomatic asset, given that the issue now has broad popular support, even if an actual resolution is hard to imagine at this point."

Amid the recent detente, Tokyo has maintained its rhetoric that it was necessary to maintain maximum pressure on Pyongyang until it achieves "complete, verifiable and irreversible" denuclearisation. But while it still insists that "dialogue for the sake of dialogue is meaningless", Mr Abe has mooted a summit with Mr Kim, which may take place in June.

Japan is, meanwhile, keeping up with warnings for the world not to let its guard down.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono said last Saturday that North Korea was "working hard to get ready for" what would be its seventh nuclear test. He cited satellite imagery to prove his point, purportedly showing soil being removed from a tunnel at a nuclear site where tests had been previously conducted.

But this was disputed by 38 North, the leading US think-tank on North Korea, on Monday.

"While it is unclear whether the Foreign Minister was referring to activity observed over the last few days or from earlier work conducted after North Korea's September 2017 nuclear test, commercial satellite imagery from March 23 shows quite a different picture - namely, that activity at the test site has been significantly reduced compared to previous months."

Mr Kono, in responding to the 38 North report, did not address the decrease in activity but said: "Taking into account the range of publicly available information, I believe that activity at the nuclear facilities - including the test site - is continuing."

The 38 North also said that it believes nuclear test sites remain operationally ready in case an order is given for a nuclear test to be carried out.

A second major issue that Mr Abe will raise with Mr Trump is trade. He will likely request for Japan to be exempted from the aluminium and steel tariffs imposed last month - though there are concerns that Mr Trump might use this as leverage to prod a reluctant Japan towards a bilateral free trade deal.

Tokyo prefers a multilateral trade arrangement, and Finance Minister Taro Aso said last week that a bilateral framework was a non-starter.

"Japan only exports special steel products in which it has outstanding market share and which US companies cannot produce," Mr Aso had said. "If US companies want these products, they need to buy them from Japan. It will be US companies that suffer."

However, the tariffs have had their impact on Japan's manufacturers. A Bank of Japan survey on Monday showed a drop in business sentiment among major manufacturers for the first time in eight quarters, owing to protectionist US trade policies that have led to a strong yen.

"I think Japan will try to offer Trump the minimum while Trump will want to seek the maximum," Dr Minohara said. "And Japan is not like China, which can play hardball, because it is dependent on the US for security."

He added: "Abe wants Trump to realise that Japan is a player, and to extend that courtesy to Japan. But I don't think Trump sees Abe as an equal but more of a sidekick. If Trump is Batman, then Abe is Robin."

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