President Donald Trump welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with a brotherly hug and warm words of admiration Friday, as he ditched previously hard-charging rhetoric toward Tokyo during a White House summit.
Trump praised his guest’s “strong hands,” the pair’s “very, very good chemistry” and rolled out a White House military honor guard in a remarkable public display of diplomatic affection.
“When I greeted him today at the car,” Trump said after an Oval Office meeting, “I shook hands, but I grabbed him and hugged him, because that’s the way we feel.”
The odd political couple had lunch at the White House before heading to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida for further talks and a round of golf.
US-Japan ties have been strained by Trump’s willingness to question US defense commitments and his rejection of a trans-Pacific trade deal.
Plans under consideration in the White House propose a substantial hike of import tariffs that could have a serious impact on Japanese manufacturers.
Abe dodged questions about the trade deal, instead dispatching a slew of compliments.
“Donald, Mr President, you are an excellent businessman,” he said, praising Trump on everything from his meteoric political rise to his golf game.
“My scores in golf are not up to the level of Donald at all,” Abe said self-effacingly.
Abe’s efforts appeared to have paid off. After some tough anti-Japanese rhetoric on the campaign trail, Trump embraced long-standing defense agreements and “free, fair and reciprocal” trade.
“We’re committed to the security of Japan,” Trump said.
“The bond between our two nations and the friendship between our two peoples runs very, very deep. This administration is committed to bringing those ties even closer.”
In a statement, Trump offered reassurances the US would come to Japan’s defense if China were to seize the disputed Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyu in China. In a joint statement, the pair said they “oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands” — comments that are sure to rile Beijing.
Although Abe has pushed ahead with efforts to boost Japan’s military capabilities, Tokyo still relies on US security guarantees.
Meanwhile, the US Pacific Command said Friday that a Chinese military aircraft had an “unsafe” encounter with a US Navy surveillance aircraft near a contested reef in the South China Sea.
The two planes came within 1,000 feet of each other during Wednesday’s incident near the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both the Philippines and China, according to Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis.