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International relations

Trump's back-to-back visits reflect Abe's diplomatic game plan

Prime minister seeks leverage in talks with Russia and North Korea

World leaders are envious of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. Some are even seeking his advice on how to arrange golf meetings.   © Kyodo

TOKYO -- U.S. President Donald Trump is set to visit Japan in May and again in June, an unusual schedule reflecting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's eagerness to showcase a personal rapport with the American leader for diplomatic advantage with other countries.

Tokyo and Washington are negotiating a visit by Trump from May 26 through May 28. He will become the first state guest to be received by Crown Prince Naruhito after he takes the throne May 1. Trump will then return to Japan a month later -- from June 28 through June 29 for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka. 

Abe asked Trump several times last year to visit Japan in May to meet with the new emperor, and the president has been receptive. "I'll be going to a tremendous event in Japan -- I was very honored to be invited -- your emperor," Trump told Abe on the sidelines of the G-20 in Argentina last year.

The American leader will be treated as a state guest and will be invited to a banquet at the Imperial Palace. The emperor typically visits state guests at their lodgings before they leave Tokyo. The prime minister may also play golf with the president.

Former President Barack Obama visited Japan four times during his eight years in office but never more than once a year.

Abe will likely discuss North Korea with Trump, who is preparing for his second summit with Kim Jong Un on Feb. 27 and Feb. 28. This will be an opportunity for the two leaders to explore policies for denuclearization and securing the return of Japanese nationals abducted by the North decades ago.

Trade agreement talks will also be on the agenda. The talks were expected to begin as early as January but have been postponed as the U.S. focuses on trade negotiations with China. Preliminary talks among cabinet-level negotiators could kick off once the May summit is set.

As one of the longest-serving Japanese prime ministers, Abe is eager to settle Japan's thorniest postwar diplomatic rows. His close relationship with Trump, who prefers top-down decision-making, carries weight with other leaders.

At Abe's summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping last October, the two talked about the Japanese leader's experience golfing with Trump. A number of countries have reportedly asked how they could arrange golf outings with the U.S. president, according to an official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs here.

Most important to Abe, Japan's peace treaty negotiations with Russia to formally end World War II are reaching a crucial point. Putin is expected to visit Osaka for the G-20 summit, but Moscow and Tokyo remain far apart on how to settle territorial issues.

Russia has expressed concern that the southernmost Kuril Islands, administered by Moscow but claimed by Japan as the so-called Northern Territories, could be used to station American forces if handed over to Japan. Collaboration between Trump and Abe thus is key to advancing talks with Moscow.

Given Trump has scheduled another meeting with Kim, Abe must also rely on Trump to secure the return of abductees -- an issue the prime minister has repeatedly called a priority.

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