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3 Things to Watch as Trump, Abe Try to Rekindle Bromance

U.S. tariffs on Japanese imports 'may well come up,' official says

President Donald Trump greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he arrives at the White House on February 10, 2017. They will meet again next week in Florida (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as he arrives at the White House on February 10, 2017. They will meet again next week in Florida (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

ANALYSIS | When President Donald Trump huddles next week with Shinzo Abe, the summit will mostly cover issues that have irritated the Japanese prime minister.

North Korea and trade relations likely will dominate the leaders’ talks at Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago resort that will span three days next week. Trump and Abe will compare notes on the North’s nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs, and the U.S. president’s planned one-on-one summit with Kim Jong Un. They also, however, will have to cover a number of prickly issues related to Trump’s trade policies and Abe’s worries that his country is drifting out of America’s economic orbit.

A senior administration official who briefed reporters late Friday morning on the second Trump-Abe summit at the Florida compound since the U.S. president took office was notably tight-lipped about White House expectations for the talks. But here are three things to watch next week.

Northern Exposure

Abe was caught flat-footed when Trump abruptly announced last month he would talk directly with the North Korean leader. Reports from his country indicated Abe opposed a Trump-Kim summit, and he was worried about losing sway in the region.

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Part of the objective for the meeting next week is to assuage Abe’s concerns that Kim may out-flank Trump in those still-being-planned talks. The U.S. president “has great respect for Prime Minister Abe’s views … on security,” the senior administration official said. “The president wants [Abe’s] thoughts beyond what he has already shared. … Prime Minister Abe has very good ideas.”

Asked if Abe — during his frequent telephone conversations with Trump — has tried to convince him to cancel the Kim meetings, the official replied: “No.”

Tariff Tiff

The disputes don’t end there between Trump and the first world leader to embrace him and lavish him with praise before cameras in the White House’s ornate East Room.

When the Trump administration announced the list of countries that would get exemptions from the president’s steel and aluminum tariffs, Japan was excluded. The senior official noted Japan could still obtain a waiver, adding: “It may well come up.”

As Abe seeks to keep the U.S.-Japanese alliance strong, there are worries in his country that Trump could be tempted to form a trade alliance with China — especially given his warm relationship with and frequently public praise of Chinese President Jinping Xi. On Thursday, Trump likely rattled the Abe administration when he put a rosy veneer on the ongoing U.S.-China tariff tussle.

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“China is negotiating with us very hard, very long, and we’ve made a lot of progress for opening it up and for getting rid of those tariffs. And I think you’re going to see some tremendous business openings,” Trump said with a wide smile. “President Xi, who is a friend of mine, and a man I like very much — I think he actually likes me very much also.”

Rekindling The Bromance

The White House is not setting big goals for next week’s summit, instead describing it as a chance for the two leaders to discuss a range of issues, especially North Korea.

Their relationship started off warm, with Abe using their first joint press conference last year to bathe the new American chief executive with praise on a personal level.

“We will play golf together. My scores in golf [are] not up to the level of Donald at all,” he said in February 2017 before they flew together on Air Force One to South Florida. “Now with the birth of the Trump administration, a new genesis will be built between Japan and U.S. in economic relations.”

Since then, however, Abe has grown irritated with Trump and his policy moves.

“I don’t think it would be accurate to describe the need for repair work,” the senior administration official said Friday when asked if Trump is feting Abe again at his resort to mend any hurt feelings. “Overall, the [U.S.-Japanese] relationship has never been better.”

But don’t expect the two golf-lovers to again hit the links at Trump’s nearby golf club. In fact, the senior official said another South Florida golf game like they had last February isn’t even on the agenda this time.

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