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With Trump golf outing, will Abe find himself in the bunker or on the green?

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Yes, they will hit the links again after all. The question is, will Prime Minister Shinzo Abe find himself in the bunker or on the green when he meets U.S. President Donald Trump this week?

After weeks of speculation, Tokyo officially announced Tuesday that Abe will take a stab at his now-famous “golf diplomacy” during a two-day meeting with Trump in Florida this week, in the apparent hopes of rekindling their personal rapport, which is increasingly being thrown into question.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tokyo hopes to “further solidify a relationship of trust between the two leaders” through “relaxing” bonding opportunities such as golf and dinner.

“By playing golf, you can exchange opinions on many different topics,” Suga said. “I hope it will help deepen their friendship.”

He declined to comment on when the golf outing will be scheduled during Abe’s four-day visit to the United States.

To discuss North Korea and trade issues, Abe departed from Tokyo’s Haneda airport on Tuesday afternoon bound for Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

It will be their second meeting at the Florida resort. Abe was the first foreign leader invited there, when the two played golf and bonded over their love of the sport in February last year.

Abe has characterized the latest trip as an opportunity to reaffirm the joint commitment to ridding North Korea of its nuclear weapons while also seeking Trump’s cooperation on Japan’s efforts to repatriate citizens abducted by Pyongyang in the 1970s and ’80s.

Japanese officials initially believed it was unlikely that Abe would join Trump for another round of golf, fearing such a move might appear too frivolous for a leader who has come under intense fire at home in recent weeks over a relentless cascade of scandals, including his own alleged cronyism.

An opinion poll conducted Friday through Sunday by Nippon News Network showed his support rate nose-diving to a perilously low 26.7 percent, while a telephone survey carried out by Kyodo News over the weekend also found his Cabinet’s popularity plummeting to 37 percent.

“I don’t think he should,” a senior government official said earlier this month when asked if golf diplomacy was the best approach by Abe, who has gone out of his way to court Trump since his stunning electoral victory in 2016.

Still, a round of golf with the leader of the world’s largest economy has been one of the few diplomatic privileges Abe has treasured.

In fact, the significance of such a one-on-one outing may be greater than ever now that Abe’s once-lauded close ties with Trump are in serious doubt.

In recent weeks, Abe has been blindsided by Trump, who made a drastic about-face to say that he plans to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by early June and also announced exclusions for all major U.S. allies — except Japan — from steel and aluminium tariffs.

“I want to demonstrate the strong bond of the Japan-U.S. alliance,” Abe told reporters at his office before flying to Florida.

Golf diplomacy, in fact, remains a great source of pride for his government.

“Some ambassadors in Europe have begged me to tell them what they need to do to nail a golfing opportunity with President Trump, even for one hole,” another high-ranking government official said, adding that he believes it was Abe’s bold decision to make a congratulatory visit to Trump immediately after his November 2016 election that set the prime minister apart from other world leaders and eventually won him over.

Asked if Abe is possibly the only world leader whom the U.S. president will join on the green at the moment, the official said, confidently: “I bet so. Can you picture him playing golf with (Chinese President) Xi Jinping?”

But the last time Abe and Trump played golf together, at Kasumi Country Club during the president’s November visit to Japan, it didn’t exactly go the way the Japanese leader might have hoped.

A video clip of their outing showed Abe falling backward into a sand bunker as Trump, in complete ignorance of his golf buddy’s predicament, continued walking. The clip immediately went viral.

Still, Abe has remained sanguine about the pair’s ties.

“President Trump actually complimented me for the way I tumbled,” Abe insisted while delivering a speech in Tokyo late last year. “He told me I was not only a great golf player but also was the best gymnast he knew.”