Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Japan-Russia: Abe’s brutal truth

After nearly two dozen bilateral meetings with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Japan’s Shinzo Abe still cannot show meaningful progress on a territorial dispute between the two nations.

Japan’s Shinzo Abe arrives for a meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin (Photo:
Japan’s Shinzo Abe arrives for a meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin (Photo:

On 26 May, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in Moscow for what was their 21st bilateral meeting. For the most part, the outcomes of that meeting paint a sorry picture for the Abe administration.

No meaningful progress was made at the meeting on core issues between the two nations: neither on the long-standing territorial dispute over the four Kuril islands (Northern Territories for the Japanese), nor on a final post-war peace treaty.

This is disappointing enough for the ambitious Abe government. More importantly, however, the Russia policy stalemate has exposed the deeper and more concerning situation in which Abe’s Japan now finds itself.

The impressive meeting count speaks volumes. It displays Abe’s commitment to removing one of the longest standing obstacles to Japan’s achievement of a truly post-war security environment in its immediate region. But as much Japanese commentary has noted, after 21 meetings there is still no breakthrough on either issue. For this reason, Abe’s Russia campaign is starting to look like a template for foreign policy failure. 

The communique released after the latest meeting celebrated forward movement on the shared commitment to develop “joint economic activities” both within and beyond the parameters of the “eight-point plan” tabled by Abe in 2016. This plan touches on areas of mutual interest, including investment in energy infrastructure and development of fishing resources and related industries.

But it doesn’t do what Abe needs this plan to achieve; namely, to open a back door through which Japan can one day revisit the sovereignty of Kurils, which is the deal-breaker bedevilling the conclusion of a peace treaty.

In order for the agreed joint economic activities to occur, there needs to be clarity on the legal and administrative parameters of those projects. Abe’s approach since 2016 has been to pitch for a “special framework” that does not compromise the interests of either nation. But to date, Putin has stood firm, insisting that any joint activities will take place on the basis of Russian law alone.

Putin has dangled the prospect of an eventual two-island return to Japan as specified in the 1956 Joint Declaration, but he has not been prepared to allow even the slimmest sliver of hope for Abe on the sovereignty question as part of their joint economic activities in those islands.

And this is not all. Putin has been ruthless in serving up reminders to Japan as to who is in charge in the Kurils. In 2017, Russia unilaterally designated Shikotan island as the location for developing a special fish-processing industrial zone, and proceeded to invite expressions of interest from nations other than Japan for foreign direct investment in that endeavour.

Expressions of interest were duly received from South Korea and from China. As geopolitical theatre, this can only be described as brutalist from a Japanese perspective. And in the unlikely event that the message was not received, Russia has also permitted warplanes to use a civilian landing strip on Iturup (Etorofu) island, and deployed defence missile systems to the area. Plans for a naval base were also mooted in 2017.

Of course, none of this is happening in a vacuum. Japan’s predicament vis-à-vis missiles launched over its territory by a nuclear-capable North Korea has spurred it to deploy more Aegis missile systems to Akita and Yamagata prefectures. Seeing this, Russia is even more convinced that if Japan had any sovereignty over the Kuril islands they could become a launch pad for a US military presence in the Russian Far East. Japan’s status as a US ally is a large part of what makes Russia uncomfortable.

And this is where irony meets despair from Japan’s perspective. The recent headline dalliance between South and North Korea, and between North Korea and the US (with mediations by China), has shone a harsh spotlight on a salient fact: Japan has been diplomatically marginalised in its own region on a matter in which it has vital national interests at stake, with the eager facilitation of the Koreas and China, and the tacit permission of the US.

Something like this would have been unthinkable during the Obama administration, but under President Donald Trump it underscores the poor returns for Abe of his US diplomacy.

This leaves Abe, who is already besieged by scandals at home that are threatening to deny him the party presidency and prime ministership in September, quite desperate. It motivates him, despite all of the developments outlined above, to move closer to Russia at the time when the rest of the West is ostracising that regime.

In the process, Japan might find itself out of step with its erstwhile ally and security partners, something that will not dismay Putin’s Russia. Abe may, through chequebook diplomacy, seek to enhance confidence-building measures and incentives for Russia to partner with Japan, as a means of creating more distance between Russia and China. But in the diplomatic game of distancing and alienation, it feels that Russia has more cards in hand than Japan does at this time.

It is difficult to see how Japan can resolve its geopolitical dilemma in the short-term. Ultimately, Russia will welcome Japanese investment in the Russian Far East, and any real long-term progress on normalising North Korea is unthinkable without substantial Japanese buy-in.

For now, Japan is on the outer in its own region, with a clear strategic objective but few means of realistically achieving it.

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