Russo-Japanese ties have been gaining traction since the spring of 2016 after over two years of marked stagnation brought on by the Ukrainian crisis, culminating in Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan on December 15-16 2016.
While there are few, if any, palpable achievements to be presented by Abe on the Russian vector of his diplomacy, a Russo-Japanese rapprochement is clearly taking shape, and the prime minister’s strategy towards Moscow becomes discernible. Not fased by stirring discord in the G7’s Russia policy and effectively breaking the anti-Putin sanctions regime, Abe seems bent on presiding over a resolution of the decades-old territorial row. Amid the current Russia-Japan honeymoon of sorts, however, he should not lose sight of the perils inherent in his charm offensive towards Moscow, especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent upset victory in the US presidential election.
In May 2016, Abe and Putin announced that they were planning to tackle the Northern Territories dispute based on an undisclosed new approach. Abe also unveiled an 8-point plan of economic cooperation, including joint projects in the Russian Far East.
While it has not been officially confirmed, there is evidence to suggest the two announcements are directly connected, with tightened economic cooperation serving as the cornerstone of the new approach with regard to the disputed islands. It is likely that Abe intends to use closer economic relations as a means to sway Russia towards relaxing its hard-line stance on the Northern Territories.
At the same time, Abe realizes that merely giving to Russia without asking for anything in return would take a toll on his public support, and the longer he plays the game on Moscow’s terms, the bigger hit his popularity is going to take. Therefore, he strives to achieve some tangible progress and strike an islands deal at any cost even disregarding the potential short-term political fallout. Abe hopes that the diverse economic cooperation plans he has proposed to Russia would hasten the resolution of the dispute.
However, such optimism on Abe’s part seems unwarranted. Putin’s recent visit to Japan which predictably ended with further economic agreements but no resolution of the island dispute in sight seems to have confirmed that. This is mainly for two reasons – Russia having the upper hand vis-a-vis Japan, thus being able to dictate the terms of the bilateral relations, and the discrepancy between such a pragmatic approach and the purportedly “values-oriented” nature of Japan’s diplomacy under Abe.
While Japan has already played its best cards – approaching Russia when no other G7 country would and offering many lucrative economic deals – Moscow has not signalled in any way that it is about to compromise on its position regarding the disputed territories. During an interview before his Japan visit, Putin told the press that Russia does not in fact have a territorial problem with Japan, and it is only Japan that believes so, highlighting how much more important the issue is to Tokyo than to Moscow.
Even a deal involving Russia transferring to Japan just two out of four islands in accordance with the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Declaration currently looks bleak. With Russia enjoying a stronger hand in the negotiations, there are no reasons for the Kremlin to rush the signing of any agreement when instead it can simply reap the fruits of strengthened economic partnership without providing anything in return other than noncommittal promises to continue bilateral talks.
Furthermore, Abe’s foreign policy strategy, especially towards China, is underpinned by an ideologically-driven notion of “values-oriented” diplomacy, emphasising the necessity for Japan to work with and assist like-minded countries which share universal values like democracy, human rights, and rule of law.
The more confrontational nature of Japan’s China policy under the Abe administration stems in part from the idea that China is a renegade state that ignores these values and disregards international law. A question arises then of how to rationalise Japan’s overtures towards Russia given that it should instead be ostracised by Tokyo based on the premises of its own diplomatic doctrine. By opting for pragmatism towards Moscow, Japan puts into doubt its traditional identity of a “reactive” state and a responsible member of the international community.
Moreover, such approach effectively normalises Russia’s annexation of Crimea which represents precisely the approach – changing territorial status quo by military force – that Japan rails against when dealing with China.
Yet another danger lies in Donald Trump’s shocking victory in the US presidential election. While it is yet unclear whether Trump’s Russia policy will be as accommodating as it seemed on the campaign trail, a Russia-US détente is clearly possible. Trump’s emphatic denial of the possibility of the Kremlin interfering in the US election; his Chief of Staff Reince Priebus’ refusal to commit to keeping the sanctions regime; as well as Trump’s pick of Rex Tillerson for Secretary of State all suggest that his administration is likely going to adopt a softer approach towards Moscow. In that event, Japan’s unique position as the sole Russia-friendly G7 state will be essentially negated, making the Kremlin even less inclined to reach a deal on the disputed islands as its attention would be diverted to normalising ties with the US.
With precious few diplomatic achievements to show to the Japanese public since the start of his premiership, Abe is understandably intent on reaching a historic deal with Russia and consigning the long-standing territorial row to history. However, his desire to leave a legacy looks set on collision course with the harsh reality of Russo-Japanese relations, and his overtly approach towards Moscow seems misplaced. He still has enough time as prime minister to avoid damage being done to Japan’s international standing and take a more measured, principled stance on Russia. Otherwise, all of his investments, literal and figurative, in reaching a territorial deal with Moscow are unlikely to ever pay off.
*Dmitry Filippov is a PhD candidate at the School of East Asian Studies, the University of Sheffield; and a fellow at the Metropolitan Society for International Affairs