President Donald Trump welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with a brotherly hug and warm words of admiration Friday, as he ditched previously hard-charging rhetoric toward Tokyo during a White House summit.
Trump praised his guest’s “strong hands,” the pair’s “very, very good chemistry” and rolled out a White House military honour guard in a remarkable public display of diplomatic affection.
“When I greeted him today at the car,” Trump said after an Oval Office meeting, “I shook hands, but I grabbed him and hugged him because that’s the way we feel.”
The odd political couple had lunch at the White House before heading to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for further talks and a round of golf on Saturday.
At Palm Beach airport, the pair were welcomed by a swarm of black SUVs, and a group of onlookers wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats. Dozens of Palm Beach residents lined the sidewalks along the route to Trump’s estate, photographing the motorcade and waving American flags.
The sporting gambit recalled the diplomatic exploits of Abe’s grandfather, prime minister Nobusuke Kishi, who once donned a polo shirt to play with avid golfer president Dwight Eisenhower. Abe is in the United States on a similar charm offensive.
Then, the topic was post-war reconciliation. This time, the Japanese leader is trying to build a personal rapport with the mercurial new US president and head off simmering disputes. Ties have been strained by Trump’s willingness to question long-standing defence commitments and his rejection of a trans-Pacific trade deal.
Plans under consideration in the White House propose a substantial hike in import tariffs that could have a serious impact on Japanese manufacturers.
Abe dodged questions about the trade deal, instead dispatching a slew of compliments. “Donald, Mr President, you are an excellent businessman,” he said, praising Trump on everything from his meteoric political rise to his golf game.
“My scores in golf are not up to the level of Donald at all,” Abe said self-effacingly.
Abe’s efforts appeared to have paid off. After some tough anti-Japanese rhetoric on the campaign trail, Trump embraced long-standing defence agreements and “free, fair and reciprocal” trade. “We’re committed to the security of Japan,” Trump said.
“The bond between our two nations and the friendship between our two peoples runs very, very deep. This administration is committed to bringing those ties even closer.”
In a statement, Trump offered reassurances the US would come to Japan’s defence if China were to seize the disputed Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyu in China. In a joint statement, the pair said they “oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands” — comments that are sure to rile Beijing.
Although Abe has pushed ahead with efforts to boost Japan’s military capabilities, Tokyo still relies on US security guarantees. In a test of Trump’s transactional approach to diplomacy, Abe floated the idea of building a Japanese-designed high-speed rail link that could take Trump between the White House and Trump Tower in New York in an hour.
Early Friday, Abe told business leaders that US-Japanese commerce had been “win-win” and highlighted the hundreds of thousands of American jobs created by Japanese investments.
Most budget cars sold by Toyota and Honda are “produced in US factories by American workers,” he said, noting that US investments by Japanese firms total $411 billion, generating 840,000 jobs.
Trump has cast himself as a change agent willing to rip up existing agreements and relationships to put “America first.” While his defence secretary had travelled to Japan to send reassuring messages about the durability of the relationship until now Trump has shown little inclination to play nice.
Inside the White House, foreign policy is sometimes treated as little more than a tool to frame Trump’s image at home. “The Trump administration has sent mixed signals about the relationship thus far,” said Michael Green of the Center for International and Strategic Studies.
“For Abe, a strong relationship with the United States is critical given the threat from North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs and China’s rise.”
On the issue of China, however, Abe and Trump may find common cause. Tokyo was often concerned about president Barack Obama’s willingness to work with Beijing. Trump is expected to take a tougher line.
“We will work together to promote our shared interests, of which we have many, in the region, including freedom of navigation and defending against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat, both of which I consider a very, very high priority,” Trump said.