Abe–Trump bromance yet to bring rewards

US President Donald Trump sits on a cart as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe drives the cart as they play golf at Mobara Country Club in Mobara, Chiba prefecture, Japan, 26 May 2019 (Photo: Reuters/Kyodo/Japan's Cabinet Public Relations).

Author: Kiichi Fujiwara, University of Tokyo

While US President Donald Trump’s administration remains unpopular after more than two years in office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s handling of US–Japan relations is highly admired — at least in Japan.

Abe’s strategy was to embrace Trump. He visited the President-elect’s office in New York immediately after the election with a gift of a golden Honma golf driver followed by an invitation to Trump’s residence in Mar-a-Lago. The golf-centred ‘bromance’ led to a series of summit meetings, continuing up until Trump’s state visit to Tokyo in May 2019 and his attendance at the G20 summit in Osaka in June 2019.

There is little question that Abe and Trump are on a first-name basis — a relationship between a US president and a Japanese prime minister that in the past has only been seen between Reagan and Nakasone and Bush and Koizumi.

The Abe–Trump relationship is supported by a stronger role for the Prime Minister’s Office in Japan. Traditionally, key ministries maintained prerogatives in Japan’s policy-making process leading to a decentralised government with little power left for the prime minister. But Abe established the Cabinet Bureau of Personnel Affairs in 2012, casting his influence on the choice of 600 key positions in the government.

In foreign policy, the role that was previously played by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has now been taken over by the Prime Minister’s Office, leading to what pundits have called Kantei Gaiko (diplomacy from the Prime Minister’s Office). There have been cases such as Nakasone and Koizumi, two prime ministers who had tried to make key foreign policy decisions, but their efforts fell far short of the expanded role of the prime minister in the Abe administration.

Despite Abe enjoying a strong personal tie with Trump, the bond has not …continue reading