Trump and Abe flaunt bromance, but are they equal partners in alliance?

U.S. President Donald Trump and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wave after feeding carp before their working lunch at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Japan on Nov 6, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wave after feeding carp before their working lunch at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo, Japan on Nov 6, 2017.PHOTO: REUTERS

TOKYO - Over three days, US President Donald Trump flaunted his close friendship with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who lavished him with caps emblazoned with the words "Donald and Shinzo, Make Alliance Even Greater" and a wagyu dinner.

They also engaged in a round of golf diplomacy, exchanging fist bumps and high fives, and tore into US beef burgers together in Japan - Mr Trump's first stop on his first trip to Asia.

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", said Dr Yasushi Watanabe of Keio University.

"It was quite natural the summit will go smoothly with no major problems," he added.

The two men, on first name terms after having met six times and spoken on the phone no fewer than 16 times, rhapsodised over their bond as they partook in diplomatic rituals.

Mr Abe said Mr Trump was a "dear friend", while Mr Trump called Mr Abe "a great friend" in a bond that analysts say may help them bridge difficult issues.

Moments in their joint press conference had given critics some pause, as they betray the leaders' divergent views on a variety of issues. Mr Abe, on at least two occasions, offered a nuanced response in contrast with Mr Trump's typical bluster.

On dealing with North Korea, Mr Trump urged Japan to buy more US equipment 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".

And as Mr Trump assailed Japan for its huge trade surplus that hit US$69 billion (S$93.8 billion) last year, Mr Abe nudged the focus to both their nations taking the lead to create high-standard trade rules in the Indo-Pacific.

 

Furthermore, even as Japan has stressed it is equal partners with the US in their bilateral alliance, critics wonder if Mr Trump instead regards Japan as subservient to the US.

Mr Trump implied in a put-down that the Japanese economy is second fiddle to the US, and even interjected a question about Japan's national security meant for Mr Abe. Tokyo was forced to downplay the president's remarks a day later.

On the economy, Mr Trump said: "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."

And turning to Mr Abe, who was wearing an awkward look, he added: "I think not, okay? And we're going to try to keep it that way. But you'll be second."

Mr Trump also said that Japan "is going to be purchasing massive amounts of (US-made) military equipment", which Dr Watanabe said was an attempt to spin a win for the US.

Tokyo walked back on the claim, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga clarifying that purchases will continue "as planned in the Medium-Term Defence Program".

This means no new purchases are in order at least until the programme expires in March 2019.

Ms Shihoko Goto, who studies North-east Asia issues at the Woodrow Wilson Centre's Asia Programme in Washington, said that 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 came out when he said the US was number one, while Japan could be number two," she said.

But she said Mr Abe has some leverage, particularly on the arms sales talk.

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