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Abe Over Promises and Under Delivers on Russia

SNA (Tokyo) — Although claimed as a success, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s latest meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin produced meagre results, demonstrating just how far his Russia policy has fallen short of his lofty ambitions.

Prime Minister Abe completed his latest visit to Russia on May 27. This was Abe’s seventh trip to the country as prime minister and his twenty-first meeting with President Putin. The four-day visit included the Japanese leader’s participation in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), plus a bilateral summit in Moscow at which the countries’ long-standing territorial dispute was discussed.

In terms of economic cooperation, a total of eleven inter-governmental and commercial agreements were signed during the summit. The leaders also agreed to hold a new “2+2” meeting between their foreign and defense ministers during the second half of 2018, as well as to deepen cooperation in the fight against narcotics and money laundering.

On the crucial territorial issue, Abe and Putin agreed to accelerate preparations for conducting joint economic activities on the disputed islands, which are known as the Southern Kuriles in Russian and the Northern Territories in Japanese. To this end, a “business mission” will be dispatched to the islands in July or August. It was also determined that, for a second year running, a special flight will be organized to enable former Japanese residents to visit ancestral graves on the islands, thereby supplementing the visa-free boat trips that operate each summer.

Aside from these formal agreements, Abe and Putin emphasized cultural ties and bonds of friendship. Most notably, the leaders formally opened the Year of Japan-Russia at a gala event at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. Earlier that day, Putin and Abe held a conversation with astronauts aboard the International Space Station. The Japanese prime minister also found time to present an Akita puppy to Alina Zagitova, the Russian figure skater who won gold at the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Abe’s Optimistic “New Approach”

By the standards of many summits, this would be regarded as a satisfactory set of achievements. Yet Abe has repeatedly promised to do more than make minor improvements to the status quo of this bilateral relationship. He has described Japan-Russia ties as the bilateral relationship with the greatest potential, and he has often spoken of his intention to resolve the territorial dispute and to conclude a peace treaty before the end of his time in office.

Emerging from a meeting with Putin in Sochi in May 2016, Abe proclaimed: “I have a sense that we are moving towards a breakthrough in the stalled peace treaty negotiations.” In order to deliver this, he unveiled a “new approach” to relations. This proposes to use increased economic cooperation to demonstrate the value of closer ties with Japan and thereby incentivize the Russian leadership to consider territorial concessions. An eight-point economic cooperation plan was also produced, and Abe created a new cabinet-level position to oversee its implementation.

More controversially, Abe’s policy has involved distancing Japan from Western criticism of Russia. This was apparent in 2014 when the Abe administration introduced merely token sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea. Likewise, the Japanese government has refused to join Western countries in expelling Russian diplomats in retaliation for Moscow’s alleged role in the use of a chemical weapon in the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in the United Kingdom in March 2018.

Given this record, it was no surprise that Abe chose to make no comment on the international report about the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014. Made public on May 25, while Abe was with Putin at SPIEF, this report found the Russian state legally responsible for the downing of the passenger jet and for the resulting deaths of all 298 people on board.

Although the ultimate aim of the “new approach” is to secure the return of the disputed territory, Abe set the interim goal of conducting joint economic activities on the islands. He appeared to make initial progress when, during Putin’s visit to Japan in December 2016, the Russian leader agreed to discuss the proposal. In 2017, the sides settled on five priority projects and also conducted two initial survey visits.

The significance of the proposed joint projects is not their economic impact but their potential influence on the question of sovereignty. This is because the Japanese government insists that the joint economic activities be conducted under a special legal framework that is distinct from Russian jurisdiction. Such an arrangement would allow a Japanese presence to return to the islands for the first time since the Japanese residents were deported after the islands’ occupation by the Soviet Union in 1945. It would also represent an acknowledgement from Moscow that the islands are in some way different from the rest of Russian sovereign territory.

It had been hoped that this strategy would come to fruition during Abe’s latest Russia visit. Coming two years after the start of the “new approach,” it was anticipated that the effects of the eight-point cooperation plan would have become discernible and that the Russian authorities’ appetite for greater Japanese investment would now have been whetted.

Furthermore, the timing of the May visit was seen as propitious since it followed Putin’s reelection as president in March. Since this is supposedly Putin’s last term and he need not face the electorate again, it was thought that he might now be more willing to consider unpopular territorial concessions.

A Cold Shower of Reality

The results of the May visit demonstrate the extent of Abe’s earlier over-optimism. Firstly, rather than inducing Moscow to make concessions in order to unlock additional Japanese investment, Japan’s eight-point cooperation plan has rather caused frustration. Russian officials have relatively little interest in the small-scale practical projects, such as the rehabilitation center in Vladivostok or smart traffic lights in Voronezh, that Abe championed during his speech on May 25. Instead, the Russian leadership is impatient for multibillion dollar investments, especially in the liquefied natural gas (LNG) sector.

There is also annoyance at the slow pace of progress, which has meant that only around half of the more than 130 agreements signed under the eight-point plan have actually proceeded to implementation. This sentiment was on display when Putin told the audience at SPIEF that “The volume of Japanese investment in the Russian economy is, shall we say, rather modest.” He also compared the volumes of Japan-Russia trade and investment unfavorably with those with China.

Secondly, superficial progress in agreeing the details of the joint economic projects masks a major underlying problem. This is that the sides remain far apart on the question of legal jurisdiction, with Moscow appearing to insist that the activities can only be conducted under Russian law. This is evidently unacceptable to Japan, meaning that there is a high likelihood that the joint economic activities will not be able to proceed.

To make matters worse, Putin announced at the summit that the only possible solution to the territorial dispute is for Russia to transfer the two smaller of the four disputed islands to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty. These two islands account for only 7% of the total disputed landmass and this proposal was rejected by Japan when it was originally made in the countries’ Joint Declaration of 1956.

Added to this, Putin emphasized that any solution would have to correspond to the strategic interests of Russia and Japan, and would have to be accepted by the peoples of both countries. This adds another two sizable obstacles to a territorial deal since Russia sees its strategic interests as being served by reducing the US military presence in East Asia, something that Japan is unlikely to support. Moreover, the vast majority of Russians are against making any territorial concessions to Japan.

Growing Recognition of Policy Failure

Despite his likely disappointment, Abe concluded his Russia visit on a positive note, stating that he was already looking forward to traveling to Vladivostok in September. However, while Abe seems determined to press on with the “new approach,” others in his administration appear to have recognized that the policy has failed. As one government official told the Japanese media, “We were overly eager. We misread the temperature in Russia.”

Abe cannot be blamed for failing to resolve a dispute that has stubbornly endured for more than seven decades. He can, however, be faulted for his naive and dogged championing of a policy that never held a realistic prospect of success.

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