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Can a Weekend at Mar-a-Lago Rescue the Trump-Abe Relationship?

The Japanese prime minister’s courtship of the U.S. president worked. For a while.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a news conference at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on Nov. 6, 2017. (Kiyoshi Ota/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a news conference at Akasaka Palace in Tokyo on Nov. 6, 2017. (Kiyoshi Ota/AFP/Getty Images)

After being surprised by a potential U.S.-North Korea summit and scolded on trade, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is flying to Florida next week to meet with Donald Trump — and to see if he can save his once seemingly close relationship with the U.S. president.

Abe’s upcoming trip signals a turning point in his relationship with Trump, which was held up as a model for other countries trying to forge a dialogue with an inexperienced and impatient president. But with Japan caught off guard by plans for talks with Pyongyang’s dictator, and with the president’s recent tweets about Japan taking advantage of the United States on trade, Abe seems to have fallen from favor after a promising start.

From the outset, Abe gambled on establishing a rapport with Trump, and it seemed to pay off. He was the first foreign leader to meet face-to-face with Trump after the November 2016 election, joining him at Trump Tower just over a week after his win. And he followed that up with a visit to Mar-a-Lago in February 2017, when the two bonded over their love of golf and played a round (with professional golfer Ernie Els joining them).

“I think they were very pleased with how Abe apparently won over Trump on a personal level,” says Daniel Bob, a fellow at the Reischauer Center for East Asian Studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, of the situation last year. “A lot of other world leaders were very impressed with how Abe had cracked the code.”

At least one European head of state called Abe for advice, according to Bob. (Reportedly among Abe’s tips: Try flattery, and stick to a small number of talking points and then repeat them over and over.)

During his Florida visit last year, North Korea carried out a missile test. And Abe found himself at the president’s side with an influential seat at the table.

“The serendipity of North Korea shooting that missile at that particular moment really gave Japan an edge in the discussion of North Korea,” says Sheila Smith, a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. (At the time, South Korea was preoccupied with its own domestic political crisis.)

Abe’s relationship with Trump also benefited from Japan’s ambassador to the United States at the time, Kenichiro Sasae, who — unlike some of his counterparts — had not written off the Trump campaign and maintained contacts with the candidate’s aides and supporters.

Since Trump’s election, by official Japanese count, there have been 20 Japan-U.S. telephone conversations between the two leaders and six meetings — the first of each took place before Trump was even sworn into office.

But that relationship now appears to be fraying. Trump’s decision to negotiate directly with North Korea goes against a longstanding principle that that the United States, Japan, and South Korea would speak with one voice to prevent Pyongyang from exploiting division. But recent events could provide North Korea with a chance to drive a wedge between the three allies, possibly shutting Japan out of potential multiparty talks on the Korean Peninsula.

“The Japanese have been left out in the cold,” says Evan Medeiros, who oversaw Asia policy in former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration. “Trump made this decision without consulting with Japan.”

Mindful of Japan’s more hard-line stance, North Korea could promote multilateral talks involving China, South Korea, and the United States, while leaving out Russia and Japan, according to Madeiros, who is now managing director at Eurasia Group.

While South Korean President Moon Jae-in has pressed hard for diplomatic dialogue with North Korea, the Japanese remain wary of direct talks.

“The prime minister himself repeatedly mentioned that dialogue for the sake of dialogue doesn’t mean anything,” Takehiro Shimada, the spokesman for the Japanese Embassy in D.C., says. “We would like to closely monitor and study what the real intention of Kim Jong Un is.”

Japanese officials have repeatedly underscored that they did not want any negotiations with North Korea until certain conditions were met. U.S. officials, however, say the Trump administration is in regular communication with Seoul and Tokyo over North Korea diplomacy.

“The United States and our ally Japan are committed to close coordination on our unified response to North Korea,” an administration official says.

In addition to differences over North Korea, Japan also now faces steel tariffs imposed by Washington. After announcing the tariffs last month, Trump carved out temporary exceptions for the European Union and six countries, including South Korea and other U.S. allies, but not for Japan.

Japanese industry leaders say they believe Washington is trying to use the steel and aluminum tariffs as a bargaining chip in wider trade talks.

Trump at the time waved off the idea that the tariffs would hurt his relationship with Abe. “I’ll talk to Prime Minister Abe of Japan and others — great guy, friend of mine — and there will be a little smile on their face,” Trump said at the signing of his presidential memorandum on tariffs. “And the smile is, ‘I can’t believe we’ve been able to take advantage of the United States for so long.’ So those days are over.”

Despite Trump’s comments, the differences over North Korea and trade are bound to strain the U.S.-Japan alliance, particularly as Abe’s sway over Trump seems to be fading.

“Time has worn on, and few, it seems, manage to have very stable relationships with Trump, at least at a peer to peer level,” James Schoff, a senior fellow in the Carnegie Asia Program, tells Foreign Policy. “In some ways, this was inevitable.”

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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