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International relations

Trump and Abe avoid the rough over two days at Mar-a-Lago

Both had more to gain from golf course camaraderie than trade confrontation

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump renew their bond over golf in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 18.   © Cabinet public relations office

PALM BEACH, U.S. -- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump this week sought to show the world, and perhaps China in particular, that they agree much more than they disagree. They shored up their relationship over two days at Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, including a full 10 hours of face time with another round of golf diplomacy. 

Nervous Japanese officials were undoubtedly relieved the summit went off without major snags.

"We had never had a summit where we didn't know how it would go until it actually started," one senior official in Japan's foreign ministry said.

Abe and Trump glossed over their differences, which center on U.S. import tariffs and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Instead, they focused on the need for the denuclearization of North Korea and agreed to set up a new framework for talks on "free, fair and reciprocal" trade.

Speaking to reporters at the outset of the summit on Tuesday, Trump made a point of noting how well he has treated Abe, whom he hosted at Mar-a-Lago last year as well.

"Many, many people want to be here," the president said. "Many of the leaders want to be here. They request specifically."

At a joint news conference after their meetings on Wednesday, Trump said, "I want to thank the prime minister for his insight and support over the past year as we have pursued the dream of a peaceful nuclear-free Korea." Abe replied that over the last two days, he was "able to further deepen my friendship and relationship of trust with President Trump."

Their rapport contrasted with the tension in the Japanese camp prior to the summit. 

The U.S. in March imposed higher tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. Japan, despite being a close ally, did not receive an exemption. The Japanese side was also worried about friction over the TPP, which Trump abandoned in one of the first acts of his presidency.

Abe wants to persuade Trump to return to the trade pact and bring it into force as soon as possible. 

Even after Abe arrived in Florida, Trump worried Japanese officials with an anti-TPP tweet. He wrote that he does not like the deal for the U.S. "Bilateral deals are far more efficient, profitable and better for OUR workers."

With Abe, Trump did hint at the possibility that he might reconsider. "I don't want to go back into TPP, but if they offered us a deal that I can't refuse on behalf of the United States, I would do it," he said.

Standard diplomatic procedure is to outline leaders' discussions prior to a summit, through working-level talks. With Trump, however, everything hinges on the president himself -- hence the anxiousness in Japanese officialdom.  

Yet both Trump and Abe had more to gain from showing a united front than butting heads. China and other countries were surely watching closely for any signs of a widening rift between them.

Plus, the U.S. will hold midterm elections this fall, and Trump wants diplomatic achievements to help the Republican cause. Abe faces an election for the presidency of his ruling Liberal Democratic Party, and needs to show he is still the right man for the job.

Abe, it seems, hoped to achieve the most headway on the fairways.

The prime minister made a few trade-related proposals while playing golf with Trump, including the new framework for talks. Along with his score card, Abe carried a "cheat sheet" with some key English words and relevant statistics, a Japanese government official said.

Back in Japan, Abe is under fire over scandals involving private school operators and the resignation of Vice Finance Minister Junichi Fukuda over alleged sexual harassment. His government's approval rating has been falling, raising questions about Abe's prospects for securing a third term atop the LDP.

The trip to Mar-a-Lago was a crucial opportunity for Abe to show he is a powerful leader who commands the respect of Trump and others. This might just turn the tide of public opinion in Japan, if it convinces the electorate that no one else can fill Abe's shoes. A close aide to Abe predicted that the approval rating would rebound after the visit. 

Still, only time will really tell whether the trip was a success. When it comes to North Korea, Japan cannot be sure it has the situation under control until the planned summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un, expected to take place in June.

If Abe fails to extinguish those fires of controversy at home before his diplomatic efforts bear fruit, he might not get the credit.

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