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Japan's Abe Proves No Match for Putin in Deal-Making

Besides Japan needs Russia more than the other way around at the moment 

There is a pall of gloom in Tokyo regarding the outcome of the long-awaited visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week (December 15-16). The bitter disappointment is actually self-invited insofar as the hype in the run-up to the visit – as if Putin was coming with a magical formula to settle the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands – was completely unrealistic.

When Putin politely turned down the Japanese offer of a mate for his Akita-inu pet dog, it could have been a subtle hint that he was traveling light to Japan. At any rate, it is foolhardy to imagine that Japan’s charm offensive would persuade Russia to ever give up its sovereignty over the Kurile – at least, not until Japan steps right out of the American orbit, which of course, is just not on the cards.

Putin went into the summit meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from a position of strength and it is a fact of history that Russia is difficult to negotiate with at such moments. Russia has successfully beaten back the Barack Obama administration’s containment strategy and it is doubtful that Donald Trump will rekindle the strategy to isolate and encircle Russia – that is, even if the entire American security and defence and foreign policy establishment were to place road blocks on Trump’s plans to seek an improvement of the US-Russia relations. This is one thing.

Second, Abe finds himself in a tight spot. Obama never really liked him at a personal level but US-Japan relations nonetheless flourished in the recent years, thanks to Japan’s crucial role in the US’ pivot to Asia. Abe himself was only too keen to bandwagon with the pivot strategy, given its China-centric thrust. Japan on its own lacks the wherewithal to match China’s growing prowess. The prospect of Donald Trump presidency worries Abe, to say the last.

Unsurprisingly, Japan needs Russia more than the other way round at the moment. Russia, therefore, played its diplomatic cards astutely by proposing in the immediate terms the strengthening of the economic partnership – while keeping the territorial dispute on the back burner and also allowing the discussions to go on regarding a peace treaty.

Russia has no more need to hold political carrots in front of Japan for the latter’s help in breaking its ‘isolation’ due to US-led western sanctions. Russia also will not allow the ties with Japan to erode its entente with China, which now is an integral part of its global strategy.

At the press conference with Abe, Putin gently slipped in a new pre-condition for resolving the territorial dispute, namely, that the Americans should not be allowed any presence on any of the four islands if they were to be transferred to Japan’s control. That is to say, Abe would have to re-negotiate the parameters of the US-Japan Security Treaty with Washington.

Equally, Russia has proposed joint economic activities on the disputed islands, but added the rider that the Japanese companies operating in the Kuriles should pay taxes to Russia. That is like rubbing salt into the wound, since it is tantamount to the Japanese companies accepting the Russian jurisdiction over the islands. Abe understands  that Moscow is making a ‘take-it-or-leave-it’ offer, but he would seem to have no option other than to accept the Russian formula. Diplomacy is after all the art of the possible.

Abe hopes to sell to the Japanese public the idea of joint economic activites in the Kuriles pending a resolution of the dispute in the fullness of time. But it will be a long haul for Abe. Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, told the media that “most of the Japanese public are disappointed at the results.” He cautioned that it should be a lesson that “territorial negotiations are not easy.”

A Mainichi Shimbun editorial declared that the summit “dashed our hopes that repeated talks would move the Northern Territories issue forward and only left us to ponder the harsh reality of the situation.” The newspaper put its finger on the obvious reason for Putin’s about-face:

  • The US administration is in the midst of transition from one led by President Barack Obama, who initiated the introduction of international sanctions against Russia, to one led by President-elect Donald Trump, who advocates cooperation with Russia…  Russia has likely begun reviewing its policy towards Japan in the face of the coming change of government in the United States… The Abe administration is faced with the need to drastically review its foreign policy to determine how to proceed with territorial talks with Moscow.

However, Abe isn’t the one to be easily deterred. He has already disclosed his intention to visit Russia early next year to follow up. There is merit in his judgment that he may find the mood in Russia to dramatically change if the current hopes of a change for the better in its relations with the US turn out to be a pipedream. What can be said for the present is that Putin has outmaneuvred Abe, as a commentary by Nikkei Asian Review assessed – Optimism fades for Japan-Russia relations.

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