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Did Trump and Abe just launch a new chapter in U.S.-Japan relations?

- February 13, 2017

President Trump got off to a rocky foreign policy start in his first three weeks in office. Has he found a new friend in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who met with Trump in Washington on Friday and then traveled with the president to Florida to play a few rounds of golf on Saturday?

In week 1, Trump launched a Twitter spat with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto over Mexico’s refusal to pay for a border wall. The Mexican leader then canceled his trip to Washington.

Trump also sought to reassure British Prime Minister Theresa May that the United States was not out to abandon NATO, despite his earlier comments about the lack of burden-sharing within the alliance.

By week 3, trade adviser Peter Navarro had accused Germany of undervaluing the euro to “exploit” the United States. And Trump reportedly complained to Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that their conversation “was the worst phone call by far.” An executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries also has not endeared Trump to other global leaders.

Trump and Abe: Cementing the alliance?

Trump’s meeting with Abe struck a different chord. After their Washington meeting last week, the two leaders issued a joint statement to reaffirm their “unshakeable alliance.” Trump also displayed his affection for Abe during a joint news conference, stating, “I shook hands, but I grabbed him and hugged him because that’s the way we feel. We have a very, very good bond — very, very good chemistry.” And responding to North Korea’s missile test early Sunday, Trump stood by Abe and declared that the United States was behind “our great ally, 100 percent.”

Abe, a calm and collected politician, has been intentional and strategic in his outreach to the new U.S. president. Shortly after the November election, Abe met with the president-elect at Trump Towers to “build trust” and seek clarification on the future of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

During his campaign, Trump called Japan a currency manipulator and accused Japan of free-riding on the U.S. security regime in Asia. And the decision to abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership came as a blow to Abe, in particular. The trade pact would have linked the United States with Japan and 10 other nations, and Abe had invested significant political capital to move the agreement forward.

Despite these hurdles, the Trump-Abe relationship seems to be on sound footing. More importantly, the boost for the U.S.-Japan alliance has been a positive development for the Trump administration.

Why are U.S.-Japan relations looking rosier than other bilateral relationships?

Three reasons might explain why U.S.-Japan relations have fared better than other bilateral relationships during Trump’s first month in office:

1) Japan wants to make some deals

On Friday, Abe’s delegation came prepared to offer Trump economic goodies to support the U.S. president’s aim to “make America great again.” Japan seems willing to invest in U.S. infrastructure, which would help generate U.S. jobs.

Just prior to his trip, Abe also discussed increasing Japan’s purchases of U.S. energy exports. Finding ways to support Trump’s domestic economic agenda is a smart approach to cultivating a positive relationship and persuading Trump to consider the merits of a trade agreement with Japan, whether bilateral or multilateral in form.

2) Trump seems to be faring better on Asia policy, in any event

Trump’s Asia policy is off to a better start in what has otherwise been an unsettling transition on the foreign policy front. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s “reassurance trip” reiterated U.S. defense commitments to Seoul and Tokyo last week, quelling the allies’ concerns about Trump’s earlier statements questioning the U.S. security obligations in the region.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also reassured Congress that the United States would defend Japan’s claims over the Senkaku Islands in its dispute with China. Trump’s newfound support for the “one-China policy” in his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday appears for now to have eased tensions with China.

Under this backdrop of relative calm and continuity on core U.S.-Japan security issues and U.S. security strategy in Asia, Washington and Tokyo might find greater room for cooperation on more contentious economic issues.

3) Trump and Abe have quickly developed a personal rapport

For Trump, a businessman, personal relationships matter greatly. In their first meeting in November, Abe and Trump were joined by Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, allowing Abe to meet Trump’s family and confidants.

On Friday, Trump and Abe, accompanied by their wives, boarded Air Force One bound for Florida. Their budding bromance harks back to the Junichiro Koizumi-George W. Bush relationship in the mid-2000s, when the president invited the Japanese prime minister to his Texas ranch for beer and barbecue, and they later toured Graceland together. Koizumi was a huge Elvis Presley fan, it turned out.

The U.S.-Japan alliance flourished during the Koizumi-Bush years, attested by Japan’s expansion of its military role in support for U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Abe-Trump relationship may replicate this positive dynamic at the personal and diplomatic level.

Trump could use a friend like Abe

Given his relative unpopularity at home and abroad, Trump needs more friends like Abe. Trump appears to trust Abe, an elder statesman with considerable foreign policy experience. Four years into his second stint as prime minister, Abe now ranks as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister in more than a decade.

Although many of Abe’s regional neighbors have branded him a nationalist, the Japanese prime minister is committed to global governance, international institutions and open trade. It remains to be seen whether Abe’s relationship with Trump can sway the U.S. president to stay the course on U.S.-Japan relations — and even convince Trump that the United States needs to remain engaged in global affairs.

Andrew Yeo is associate professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. He is co-editor (with Matthew Green) of the forthcoming book, Living in an Age of Mistrust: A Study of Declining Trust and How to Get it Back.