National / Politics

Abe's golf diplomacy with Trump scores on the home front

by Isabel Reynolds


Playing golf and dining al fresco in Florida with Donald Trump won Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plaudits from the Japanese public, suggesting a more pragmatic view toward engagement with the new U.S. president than in Europe and North America.

Trump greeted Abe with a hug when he arrived at the White House this month. The pair reaffirmed their countries’ military alliance and avoided criticism — easing anxiety over Trump’s complaints about Japan’s currency and trade policies and financial support for U.S. forces. That contrasted with a more workmanlike visit days later by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has sought to contrast Trump’s policies with his own.

Abe’s visit played well in Japan, with two-thirds of respondents to a poll published Monday by the Yomiuri newspaper saying they approved of the trip. Support for Abe’s Cabinet rose 5 percentage points to 66 percent, almost the same level as when he took office in December 2012.

While opposition lawmakers criticized Abe, the prime minister said a good relationship with the U.S. was necessary. Japan, whose military is hemmed in by a pacifist Constitution, relies on its only treaty ally for a “nuclear umbrella” to deter a rising China and unpredictable North Korea. The U.S. is also Japan’s second-largest trading partner, behind China.

While surveys show disapproval of Trump is widespread among the Japanese, critics have been relatively quiet. There has been no major public opposition to an invitation for Trump to visit Japan, unlike in the U.K., where more than 1.8 million people signed a petition to prevent him from meeting Queen Elizabeth II, and the speaker of the House of Commons said the president shouldn’t be allowed to address Parliament.

Abe has been direct in his praise since Trump’s election win, calling the billionaire real estate mogul a “very successful businessman with extraordinary talents.” The prime minister presented Trump with a golf club in New York later that month, when he became the first foreign leader to meet the then-president-elect.

The two men may have more in common than it first seems. Japan has a record of accepting only a tiny number of refugees and Abe hasn’t criticized Trump over limiting entry to the U.S. Abe has in the past lashed out at the press and sought to communicate directly with the public, though he hasn’t gone as far as Trump in condemning the mainstream media as “enemies of the people.”

“Ideologically, Abe has much more in common with Trump than (former President Barack) Obama,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo. “He was singularly focused on building ties with Trump, with no interest in his jarring stance against liberal democratic norms.”

In contrast, Trudeau has underscored his differences with Trump on issues such as immigration and women’s rights. German Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the media over the weekend, during an event attended by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

“I stand by a free and independent press and have great respect for journalists,” Merkel said. “We’ve always done well in Germany when we mutually respect each other.”

Meanwhile Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who had a heated phone call with Trump last month, said the U.S. leader was wasting his time complaining that the media were spreading “very fake news” about his administration.

A YouGov poll of 15 countries published last month found that people in Germany, Scandinavia and the U.K. were more likely to think less of the U.S. for electing Trump than were respondents in Hong Kong, the Philippines and Thailand. In the Philippines, more respondents than not said they were confident in Trump.

In Japan, anxiety has eased considerably. About 45 percent of respondents to the Yomiuri poll said they were worried about ties with the U.S., compared with 70 percent in the previous survey conducted Jan. 27-29. Still, 64 percent said they saw Trump as a negative influence on global peace and stability.

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