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Shinzo Abe

‘Golf diplomacy’ under fire as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe courts US President Donald Trump

Abe was the first foreign leader to meet Trump after his election victory in November, bearing as a gift a US$3,000 gold-plated golf club

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 19 September, 2017, 3:13pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 September, 2017, 10:26pm

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will lay the “old buddies” routine on thick when US President Donald Trump visits in November and is planning to continue the two leaders’ unconventional form of diplomacy on the golf course.

Trump is scheduled to visit Japan for three days from November 5 as part of a swing through China and South Korea before he takes part in the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit from November 10 in Vietnam.

Abe was the first foreign leader to meet Trump after his election victory in November, bearing as a gift a US$3,000 gold-plated golf club. He returned in February for discussions on trade, security and other bilateral issues, with Trump inviting him to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida where the two leaders played a 27-hole round of golf over five hours.

Explaining his philosophy ahead of the game, Trump told reporters: “That’s the one thing about golf; you get to know somebody better on a golf course than you will over lunch.”

Opposition politicians in Tokyo were less impressed with the prime minister’s plans, with Seiji Mataichi, the head of the Social Democratic Party, telling a news conference Abe was going to “embarrassing” lengths to curry favour with Trump.

Shinzo Abe, friend of Trump and lacking Asian allies, is a true son of modern Japan

Instead of playing at “golf diplomacy”, Abe should echo the criticisms of other world leaders concerned by the US administration’s immigration, trade and security policies, he said. Undeterred, Abe clearly intends to keep the golfing buddies routine going.

“Abe understands that he doesn’t get to choose the president he has to work with and that at a time of a security crisis in northeast Asia, it is critical for him to reinforce how strong the alliance and these bilateral ties are,” said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University. “Perhaps they are keen to show that in the midst of this crisis, they are still able to take time to relax on the golf course.”

Abe is a keen golfer, although he has restrained himself in recent months – even during his summer holiday – to focus on domestic economic issues and the North Korea situation.

Abe’s golf habit has landed him into trouble in the past. He was roundly criticised in August 2014 for opting to continue a golf holiday instead of returning to Tokyo to oversee rescue and recovery efforts after storms and landslides hit Hiroshima Prefecture. More than 70 people were killed in the disaster.

Analysts point out golf has served as a bilateral lubricant in the past, with Nobusuke Kishi – Abe’s grandfather and prime minister in 1957 – playing a round with President Dwight D. Eisenhower in Maryland.