(CNN) — Hours before President Donald Trump was set to begin a day of male bonding with his Japanese counterpart, he issued a tweet underscoring his lingering divides with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over security matters.
The episode highlights the challenges that Abe faces in cultivating an ally in Trump, whose deeply personal view of diplomacy has led to ample displays of friendship that nevertheless sometimes fail to yield results.
Trump tweeted — as he prepared for a round of golf with Abe — that he doesn’t view North Korea’s recent short range missile tests as disturbing, a view deeply at odds with his Japanese hosts and in conflict with statements made a day earlier by his national security adviser.
“North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
The Japanese government has said North Korea’s recent test of short range missiles violated UN resolutions — a determination that national security adviser, John Bolton, agreed with in Tokyo on Saturday during a briefing with reporters.
Trump, who has chafed in recent weeks at what he views as an overly hawkish approach from Bolton, signaled he was more intent on preserving his relationship with Kim Jong Un.
“I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me,” Trump said in his tweet before taking a swipe at Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
It was a startling start to what was meant to be an ostentatious display of US-Japan unity, orchestrated by a prime minister whose stabs at becoming Trump’s closest global ally are bound by few limits of enthusiasm or taste.
There were the gold-plated golf clubs he presented the newly-elected Trump during a visit to his Manhattan tower in November 2016. There were the white baseball caps he embroidered with gold — “Donald and Shinzo: Make Alliance Great Again” — to wear over a lunch of hamburgers a year later. There was the rumored nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize, an episode still vague in detail but not denied by the Japanese government.
Whether any of that has helped Abe cultivate Trump into anything more than a friend is unclear. What is certain, however, is the example he set early on for his fellow world leaders hoping to make inroads with an untested and unpredictable president. His model of conspicuous flattery has been mimicked by leaders across the globe, though few have carried out the task with as much gusto as the Japanese leader.
On Sunday, that is set to continue as Abe joins Trump at a course outside Tokyo for another round of golf, the latest of several outings the men have enjoyed both in Japan and Florida, over the past two years.
Later, it’s back to the capital for a highly anticipated appearance at the finals of a spring sumo wrestling tournament, where Trump will observe a few rounds of the tradition-bound sport from ringside seats. He’ll present a four-and-a-half foot tall trophy, weighing between 60 and 70 pounds, to the victor. Though initial reports in Japan indicated the hardware would be termed the “Trump Cup,” the White House on Saturday clarified the prize would be referred to simply as the “President’s Cup.”
The trophy presented, Trump and Abe will join their wives for dinner at a traditional charcoal grill restaurant in Tokyo — an accommodation for a President not always eager to experience his host country’s more exotic offerings (Abe took Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, to what is regarded as the best sushi restaurant in the world, Sukiyabashi Jiro).
It’s an entire day of face time with Trump for Abe, who is eager to diffuse trade tensions while also ensuring the US remains committed to pressuring North Korea on its nuclear weapons and missile programs. The two men will meet more formally on Monday after participating in royal events with the new emperor — bringing the times they have spoken by phone or met in person north of 40.
For Abe, a strategy of cultivating Trump has drawn some criticism and even light mockery. And though Trump himself is not popular in Japan, surveys show most Japanese believe maintaining strong ties to the US is essential, no matter who its president is.
For that reason, analysts say the state visit invitation this week is less about Abe’s personal relationship with Trump than it is about a trans-pacific alliance rooted in decades-old security and economic concerns.
“It had to be the American president first,” said Michael Green, senior vice president and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It’s more about that than showing Donald Trump a lot of pomp and circumstance. The Japanese diplomatic agenda meant that whoever was president, they had to have the American president first.”
Whether Abe will succeed in converting his warm friendship into trade and security wins remains unknown. Trump, whose view of Japan as an economic rival dates from its boom period in the 1980s, continues to harp on the $68 billion trade deficit with the United States. He’s refused Abe’s pleas to remove steel and aluminum tariffs on the country. And he’s threatening new auto tariffs if a new bilateral trade agreement can’t be struck within six months.
Speaking at a dinner of business leaders shortly after touching down in Tokyo on Saturday, Trump repeated his gripes with the trade situation, but expressed optimism on a resolution.
“I would say that Japan has had a substantial edge for many, many years,” he said. “But that’s okay, maybe that’s why you like us so much. But we’ll get it a little bit more fair I think. I think we’ll do that.”
On security matters, too, Japanese officials have felt rattled by Trump. His diplomatic opening with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un caused concern in neighboring Japan, where the threat of missiles is far more potent than on the US mainland. Japan has pressed Trump to maintain pressure on Pyongyang, and has eyed the budding friendship between Trump and Kim warily — particularly because a number of Japanese citizens were abducted by the North Korean regime decades ago, an issue Abe has pressed Trump to raise with Kim during their summits.
According to White House officials, those issues would be under discussion during this week’s visit to Japan. But they were expected to play only a supporting role to the main ceremonial events of the week.
Trump, who was briefed by Abe on some of the visit’s details during a visit to Washington last month, has been hotly anticipating the pageantry, according to officials. He told reporters as he was preparing to leave he would be witnessing “something that hasn’t happened in over 200 years,” though didn’t specify what he meant.
When Abe told him the sumo wrestling tournament would be bigger than the Super Bowl, Trump couldn’t refuse.
“I said, ‘I’ll be there. If that’s the case, I’ll be there,'” Trump said in the Oval Office during Abe’s visit.
It’s a model that other world leaders have utilized to varying levels of success on a President highly susceptible to extravagant displays of flattery.
During a first stop abroad in Saudi Arabia two years ago, Trump was treated to a royal sword dancing display and a now-mocked ceremony involving a glowing orb. His relationship with Riyadh appears stronger than ever, despite its concerning human rights record and involvement in the murder of an American journalist.
The US’ strongest ally has found the flattery route somewhat harder to execute. A state visit to the United Kingdom had been an on-and-off affair for nearly two years after Prime Minister Theresa May came to the White House to extend the invitation.
It will finally come to fruition next week — and the royal welcome from Queen Elizabeth will be met with expected protests. May, meanwhile, has announced she’ll resign from office days later.