TOKYO: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe heads to the US 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.
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.
“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 destabilizing for Japan,” said a diplomatic source on condition of anonymity.
“But the machine is starting up again,” added the diplomat.
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.