Washington (AFP) – Donald Trump hosts his golfing buddy Shinzo Abe at his Mar-a-Lago resort Tuesday, with both leaders eager to iron out differences on trade and display a united front on North Korea as the US president prepares to meet Kim Jong Un.
Japan’s prime minister is making his second visit to Trump’s ostentatious Palm Beach, Florida retreat for a one-on-one meeting, followed by a broader meeting with aides, followed by photos and a sit down dinner with Melania Trump and Akie Abe.
“Looking forward to my meeting with Prime Minister Abe of Japan. Working on Trade and Military Security,” Trump tweeted early Tuesday.
The two leaders have a chunk of time free Wednesday in case they fancy a quick 18 holes.
Last year, Trump and Abe traded fist bumps and high fives as they snuck in a round of golf in Palm Beach and a return leg near Tokyo, tucking into burgers with ketchup for good measure.
“This is a very important meeting a lot of really key issues are on the line,” said Larry Kudlow, Trump’s top economic advisor. “Mr Abe is a friend of President Trump’s, I think the general setting is going to be very positive.”
But with Abe’s approval rating languishing at its lowest level in years and Trump mired in controversies and crises too numerous to list, both are under pressure.
“Long-distance relationships are complicated, and the stakes of their second rendezvous at Mar-a-Lago this week are high,” said Mireya Solis of the Brookings Institution.
Trump’s decision to hold an improbable summit with North Korea’s Kim this May or June was announced without consulting Abe. And worse, it was announced by a South Korean official.
Since then Tokyo officials have watched in horror as China and South Korea — an ally, but an uneasy one — take on a more direct hand in influencing the outcome of a nuclear crisis that places Japan’s very existence in question.
Pyongyang has lobbed test-missiles over the sea of Japan, triggering public warning alerts. The abduction of Japanese citizens by North Korea remains a high profile domestic issue.
– Playing from the rough –
As he left Japan, Abe told reporters that he would be reiterating Tokyo’s “maximum pressure” policy towards Pyongyang, and that the “important abduction issue” would be high on his agenda.
“I will use all my strength so we see progress towards resolution of the abduction issue,” he said.
Trump could do with a political victory — perhaps in the form of opening up trade negotiations with Japan as he seeks to calm an increasingly restless and crisis-weary base.
His recent decision to order air strikes in Syria has soured supporters who believed that his “America First” policies would spell an end to Middle Eastern military intervention.
This comes just weeks after signing a budget that exploded spending — infuriating Republican fiscal hawks — without paying for his much-promised wall along the border with Mexico.
Both decisions may be the result of campaign promises running into reality, but have prompted prominent supporters to balk.
Conservative pundit and longtime cheerleader Ann Coulter went as far as pillorying Trump as a “shallow, lazy ignoramus.”
Amid the tumult, Trump has taken a harder line on his promise to rewrite the global terms of trade in America’s favor.
“It is a well-rehearsed habit of Trump’s to ramp up the rhetoric on trade when he’s in a political pinch, to fire up his base,” said Solis.
Trump has announced tariffs on billions of dollars of Chinese imports, hit out at what he called European Union protectionism and warned he may walk away from a longstanding trade deal with Mexico and Canada.
“Our country has been taken advantage of for many, many years,” he said at an event in Florida on Monday.
As Trump and Abe met in Florida, Kudlow cautioned that while “Japan is a great friend and ally,” “we have certain disagreements with respect to some of the trading issues, we’ll iron those out hopefully.”
Abe was cautious on the issue ahead of the talks, saying only that he would “exchange opinions based on our shared understanding that Japan and the United States will lead the economic growth of the Indo-Pacific region through free and fair trade.”
So far Trump has proven flexible about Abe’s reluctance to begin negotiations on a free trade agreement.
But the country’s protectionist agriculture and auto markets could well be Trump’s next target, unless Abe can use his friendship to tee-up a compromise.