U.S. President Donald Trump put a period on the looming end of his bromance with outgoing leader Shinzo Abe on Monday, lauding him as “the greatest Prime Minister in the history of Japan.”
Trump made the comments in a tweet praising Abe after the two spoke over the telephone in what was likely to be their final call as leaders of the two allies after Japan’s longest-serving prime minister announced last Friday that he would be resigning due to a chronic illness.
In their Monday morning phone call — the pair’s 37th — Abe said Japan would continue working to develop new national security policies, with the missile threat from North Korea, and implicitly China, in mind, while further deepening cooperation with the United States, according to a Japanese government official who was listening in.
Abe said during the news conference on Friday that his administration had convened a National Security Council meeting for Wednesday to discuss specific new defense policies. Those include a proposal from a group of ruling party lawmakers urging the NSC to consider acquiring the capability to defeat missiles even when in enemy territory. The government is due to reveal a new policy on missile defense in September.
During the call, the prime minister also explained the reasons behind his decision to resign and thanked Trump for solidifying the Japan-U.S. alliance to an “unprecedented” level as well as his assistance on the abduction issue. The issue of recovering Japanese kidnapped by North Korean agents in the 1970s and 80s was one of his highest priorities as prime minister.
In return, the official said Trump repeatedly expressed his appreciation for Abe’s strong leadership, describing the prime minister as his “closest friend.”
In a tweet posted shortly after the call, Trump offered effusive praise for Abe.
“Just had a wonderful conversation with my friend, Prime Minister @AbeShinzo of Japan, who will be leaving office soon,” he wrote. “Shinzo will soon be recognized as the greatest Prime Minister in the history of Japan, whose relationship with the USA is the best it has ever been. Special man!”
Now, the focus will turn to the future of U.S.-Japan ties after Abe departs and as Trump seeks a second term in the White House in the presidential election on Nov. 3
Abe has been dubbed the “Trump Whisperer” by some observers for his uncanny ability to maintain a close relationship with the mercurial and at times volatile president for more than three years.
Former U.S. national security adviser John Bolton even recalled in his recently published White House memoir that Trump’s “best personal relationship among world leaders was with Abe” both as “golf buddies as well as colleagues.”
Although the prime minister assured Trump that his successor would maintain a firm commitment to the Japan-U.S. alliance, there are concerns the election will keep Trump preoccupied.
“Trump will be focused on campaigning and domestic politics, which he seems to rather enjoy,” said Corey Wallace, an expert on Japanese politics and an assistant professor at Kanagawa University. “Abe’s replacement will be happy with that situation and will not seek to do anything challenging.”
According to Wallace, the next big challenge for the U.S.-Japan alliance will be negotiations on host-nation support — a euphemism for talks on cost-sharing to keep American troops in the country.
Under the Japan-U.S. security treaty, about 50,000 U.S. troops are stationed at bases in Japan that serve as a hub for forward-deployed forces.
Japan’s support, which amounts to nearly ¥200 billion ($1.9 billion) annually, covers costs for base workers, utilities and other expenses. The current five-year payment agreement is set to expire at the end of March.
Trump has reportedly demanded that Japan pay $8 billion per year for the costs associated with hosting American troops — or risk their withdrawal. Negotiations are widely expected to begin this fall and are unlikely to be resolved before the U.S. presidential inauguration on Jan. 20.
Wallace said that if Trump is re-elected and doubles down on the demand, then this could become “a major problem” for the next prime minister.
In the interim, he said that no matter who steps into Abe’s shoes, the job of managing Trump as skillfully as Abe will remain a challenge.
“It is unreasonable to expect anyone else will easily slot right into that kind of position,” Wallace said.