Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads to the US on Tuesday, hoping his carefully cultivated relations with “golf buddy” Donald Trump will help keep Japan in the loop and out of danger amid a flurry of diplomacy on North Korea.
During talks at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the two allies are expected to stress the need to maintain “maximum pressure” on Pyongyang, as well as thrash out bilateral trade frictions.
Few leaders have courted the US president as furiously as Abe, who famously visited Trump in his gilded New York tower before the billionaire businessman was even sworn in.
The two golf-mad leaders traded fist-bumps on the course and tucked into burgers and ketchup at a golf club outside Tokyo during Trump’s visit in November, where the pair got on so well it sparked headlines of a “bromance”.
However, the recent breakneck pace of diplomacy around the Korean peninsula nuclear crisis has left Japan battling for relevance, even though it is arguably under the greatest threat.
Buttering up Trump “did Abe’s image some good domestically for a while… but such efforts have not produced enough results if you look at things objectively,” said professor Mieko Nakabayashi, an expert in US-Japan relations at Tokyo’s Waseda University and former lawmaker.
North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has summits scheduled with South Korea and the United States and has already met Chinese President Xi Jinping, leaving Japan conspicuously on the sidelines, with reported overtures from Tokyo towards Pyongyang going unanswered.
Yet it is over Japan that North Korean missiles have been flying and threats to sink the island nation “into the sea” have kept people on edge.
In Tokyo, officials deny they are out of the loop and stress they are heavily involved in diplomatic efforts to calm tensions on the Korean peninsula, coordinating closely with Seoul and Washington.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono flew to Seoul for a rare visit earlier this month, hoping to get issues dear to Tokyo onto the agenda of inter-Korean talks.
“For Abe, it is important to show that his strategy of sticking to Trump is producing results. In terms of process, he is out of the loop, it’s very destabilising for Japan,” said a diplomatic source on condition of anonymity.
“But the machine is starting up again,” added the diplomat.
Japan is pressing in particular for the emotive issue of nationals abducted by North Korea to be put on the table — which many analysts see as highly unlikely.
However, Asuka Matsumoto, visiting scholar at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, noted that Trump even mentioned the topic in his State of the Union address.
“American threat perception has recently changed since a white American university student, Otto Warmbier, was arrested and severely treated in North Korea, and eventually passed away,” she told AFP.
Abe will also seek to win guarantees from Trump that his commitment to security in East Asia remains ironclad and that there is no question of weakening the “nuclear umbrella” in place for decades.
“It’s not a charm offensive but a charm defensive,” Matsumoto told AFP.
In addition to North Korea, talks will also touch on trade — another area where Abe’s lobbying of Trump appears to have yielded little.
To its obvious displeasure, Japan was not on the list of countries exempt from Trump’s announced tariffs on steel and aluminium.
Setting the tone for the trade element of the trip, Trump tweeted Friday that Japan “has hit us hard on trade for years”.
In the run-up to the summit came news that Trump has directed senior aides to explore rejoining the 11-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership — which Tokyo said would be “extremely difficult”.
On trade, “Trump is unlikely to be fully satisfied without an immediate, tangible win of some kind,” said Scott Seaman, Asia director of the US-based Eurasia Group.
As he flies to the US, Abe leaves behind him a host of domestic scandals that have chipped away at his normally high approval ratings.
He is embroiled in twin cronyism scandals, with accusations he used his influence to get a veterinary school opened for a close friend dominating headlines in the country.
Trump too is battling on multiple domestic fronts and the US-led air strikes in Syria threaten to overshadow Abe’s visit.
The White House has insisted the summit will go ahead and Trump would travel to Florida Monday, despite cancelling a trip to Latin America in order to focus on the situation in Syria.