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With tensions high, Trump, Abe strengthen bond

Published: Updated:

With a round of golf, a custom cap and a hamburger of American beef, President Donald Trump’s first trip to Asia began with a taste of home.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe welcomed Trump to Japan Sunday with an effusive display of friendship that, in the days ahead, will give way to high-stakes diplomacy. The two leaders, who have struck up an unlikely but easy rapport, shared a casual lunch and played nine holes at the Kasumigaseki Country Club, joined by professional golfer Hideki Matsuyama.

The low-key agenda was a prelude to the formal talks, a press conference and state dinner planned in Tokyo Monday. Abe will be looking for a united front against North Korea and reassurances that the US will stand by its treaty obligations to defend Japan if attacked.

Eager to forge a bond with Tokyo’s crucial ally, Abe was one of the first world leaders to court President-elect Trump.

“The relationship is really extraordinary. We like each other and our countries like each other,” Trump said Sunday night before dinner with Abe, who for this meal did show Trump traditional cuisine with a teppanyaki dinner. “And I don’t think we’ve ever been closer to Japan than we are right now.”

Trump and Abe also exchanged glowing tweets about their golf. Trump dubbed Abe and Matsuyama “wonderful people,” while Abe called it a “round of golf with a marvelous friend.”

Abe told reporters after the golf session that the two could talk frankly in a relaxed atmosphere while out on the course. He said they were able to “carry out in depth discussion, at times touching on various difficult issues.”

A senior White House official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said the pair had discussed trade and North Korea - but didn’t keep score.

Abe was behind the wheel of a golf cart as the two men were spotted moving from hole to hole, Trump in the passenger seat smiling and waving at those they passed.

Before the game, Trump delivered a speech in which he hailed Japan as a “crucial ally” and warned adversaries not to test America’s resolve.

“Japan is a treasured partner and crucial ally of the United States and today we thank them for welcoming us and for decades of wonderful friendship between our two nations,” Trump told American and Japanese service members at Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo.

North Korea threat

Though Trump did not mention North Korea by name during the speech, the spectre of its weapons program will loom large throughout Trump’s five-nation Asia trip. The president warned of the consequences of crossing what he called the “most fearsome fighting force in the history of our world.”

“Together with our allies, America’s warriors are prepared to defend our nation using the full range of our unmatched capabilities. No one - no dictator, no regime and no nation - should underestimate, ever, American resolve,” he told the troops.

And while there is worry in the region about Trump’s unpredictable response to the threat posed by Kim Jong Un, Trump made clear he did not intend to tone down his bellicose rhetoric - including dubbing Kim Jong Un as “Little Rocket Man” - even while in an Asian capital within reach of the North Korea dictator’s missiles.

“There’s been 25 years of total weakness, so we are taking a very much different approach,” he said, speaking to reporters on Air Force One.

Trump will also meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of an upcoming summit in Vietnam.