Forget the golfing. The most enduring images from last week’s summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were photos posted to Facebook showing the two leaders at dinner with their wives in public, surrounded by a bevy of aides bringing them news of North Korea’s ballistic missile test. The ad hoc and controversial national security cooperation, carried out in full view of other diners, was followed by an impromptu press conference, where Japan’s leader spoke first. Far from seeming an insignificant partner in a decades-old alliance that has never really been tested by a crisis, Abe instead appeared as the steady and trustworthy friend of a disorganized new president facing his first challenge from one of the world’s most dangerous nations.
Even before the North Korean launch, the summit had been billed as the first personal meeting between Trump and a foreign leader. British Prime Minister Theresa May could claim being the first foreign leader, and ally, to meet Trump, but it was Abe who received the presidential seal of approval by being invited along with his wife to fly down to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida and spend part of a weekend golfing with the president, while the first lady toured a botanical garden with Akie Abe, the premier’s wife.
Gone were the threats by the new president to walk away from the alliance if the Japanese did not pay more to host U.S. troops and increase their own defense budget. Little was said about the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Trump also told Abe that, in spite of earlier comments, he did not consider Japan to be engaged in currency manipulation. Instead, the simple message was that Abe had become Trump’s first true foreign ally.
Abe’s success comes from a single-minded desire to avoid controversy with Trump and to portray Japan as the United States’ willing partner. It is not very different
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