Monday 23 April 2018

Japan’s PM to play golf and talk politics with Donald Trump in Florida

Like his host, Shinzo Abe is embroiled in domestic controversy ahead of the meeting in which North Korea is one topic likely to be discussed.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe waves with his wife Akie Abe while boarding his plane before departure for the US (Kenzaburo Fukuhara/AP)
Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe waves with his wife Akie Abe while boarding his plane before departure for the US (Kenzaburo Fukuhara/AP)

By Mari Yamaguchi and Ken Moritsugu

Donald Trump and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe will put domestic controversies to one side when they meet at the US president’s Mar-a-Lago resort for two days of talks.

Like the US leader, Mr Abe has found himself at the centre of criticism, in his case allegations of cronyism and the mishandling documents by ministries.

Before boarding his flight to the US from Tokyo, Mr Abe took the unusual step of pledging to clean up the mess in government when he gets back.

“As head of the government, I’m committed to deal with every single problem responsibly to uncover the truth and squeeze out the pus,” he said.

Mr Abe’s meetings with Mr Trump may provide a brief respite from his problems at home and could even stem the slide in his popularity.

The two leaders plan to play golf, as at their two previous summits.

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President Donald Trump will host Shinzo Abe in Florida (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

But this round of talks in Florida may prove more challenging than the first two.

Mr Abe will have to overcome policy divisions on trade and potentially North Korea that have emerged in Mr Trump’s second year in office.

A poor summit showing could further undermine Mr Abe’s position at home.

The Japanese leader’s approval ratings have declined to below 30% in some polls as Mr Abe has been hit by accusations of cronyism and the mishandling of official documents by several ministries.

That contrasts with the 50% approval rating he enjoyed at the time of his Tokyo summit with Mr Trump in November, soon after leading his ruling party to a landslide election victory.

A school land deal scandal linked to Mr Abe’s wife re-erupted in March after a newspaper revealed that Finance Ministry officials had altered documents related to the school’s purchase of state land at a huge discount.

Mr Abe has denied that he or his wife intervened in the sale.

Then, a second allegation of favouritism resurfaced, in which a friend of Mr Abe got permission to establish a new veterinary school in western Japan.

Mr Abe weathered both scandals last year, but the discovery of new evidence has reignited the charges.

While playing golf, they (Donald Trump and Shinzo Abe) can take time and exchange views on a range of issues while deepening their relationship of trust Japan's chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga

Separately, the Defence Ministry has acknowledged mishandling documents related to a former peacekeeping mission in South Sudan, and a top Finance Ministry official has been accused of sexual harassment.

The mounting scandals have called into question Mr Abe’s chances of securing a third term as party leader this September, which seemed assured earlier this year, and could even force him to step down before the leadership race.

Other party leaders with an eye on the premiership are ready to pounce should Mr Abe fall, though he has bounced back from setbacks before.

Mr Abe’s aides hope that the meeting with Mr Trump will showcase the leaders’ close personal relationship, as the two summits last year did.

“While playing golf, they can take time and exchange views on a range of issues while deepening their relationship of trust,” chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a regular briefing on Tuesday.

Mr Trump surprised Mr Abe, and much of the world, when he announced that he would meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

That summit is expected in May or early June.

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President Donald Trump and Japan's Shinzo Abe at the White House during a previous meeting (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Mr Abe will want to make sure Mr Trump does not cut a deal with North Korea that leaves Japan exposed to shorter-range missiles that do not threaten the US mainland.

He also is expected to ask Mr Trump to raise with Mr Kim the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.

Mr Abe also will likely seek a reversal of the decision not to exclude Japan from new steel and aluminium tariffs, while resisting Mr Trump’s attempts to pull Japan into bilateral trade negotiations.

Japanese officials said Mr Abe and Mr Trump might also discuss the Trans-Pacific Partnership, after Mr Trump indicated last week that the US might be interested in rejoining what is now an 11-country trade agreement.

Mr Trump pulled the US out of TPP shortly after his inauguration in early 2017.

Press Association

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