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Abe Gets Lesson in Foreign Policy from Russia

SNA (Tokyo) — Japan’s Prime Minister Abe has long sought to present himself as a skilled practitioner of international affairs, yet the abject failure of his Russia policy raises questions about his diplomatic competence.

Ahead of the last general election in October 2017, Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) promoted the narrative that incumbent prime minister Shinzo Abe was the only person with the necessary foreign policy expertise to guide Japan through a period of unprecedented threats to national security. Chief among these was the nuclear and missile threat from North Korea.

The same argument was rolled out during Abe’s successful campaign to be re-elected LDP leader. Abe himself vowed to “lead the world” in opposing protectionism. Akira Amari, who was director-general of Abe’s campaign office, stated that, “It is even said that the G7 can’t be held together without Prime Minister Abe.”

This vaunted foreign policy ability was, however, nowhere to be seen on January 22 when Abe came away empty-handed from his 25th meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

Improving relations with Russia has been a priority of Abe’s foreign policy since he returned to power in December 2012. In particular, the prime minister has repeatedly pledged to resolve the countries’ territorial dispute over the Russian-held Southern Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territories) before the end of his time in office.

In pursuit of this goal, Abe has met Putin as frequently as possible and has described the Russian leader as someone who is “dear to me as a partner.” He has also introduced an eight-point economic cooperation plan and created a new cabinet-level position to oversee its implementation.

Furthermore, the Abe government introduced merely symbolic sanctions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and refused to join other G7 countries in expelling Russian diplomats after the Skripal case in March 2018, when Russian agents botched an assassination attempt in the United Kingdom using a chemical weapon. Japan has also demonstrated its distance from the West’s tougher stance by welcoming Russian officials who are subject to EU and US sanctions.

On the territorial issue itself, Abe has bent over backwards to be accommodating. In November 2018, he agreed with Putin to base territorial negotiations on the 1956 Joint Declaration. This document includes the commitment for Moscow to transfer the smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty, yet it makes no mention of the much larger islands of Iturup and Kunashir. As such, Abe has clearly signaled his willingness to settle for sovereignty over just two of the four disputed islands, even though these account for only 7% of the disputed land area.

Finally, Abe has reportedly promised Putin that he would not approve any US requests to base military forces on Shikotan or Habomai if those islands were indeed handed over. According to the Japanese media, the sides have also discussed the inclusion of a clause within any prospective peace treaty that would require Japan and Russia to refrain from hostile military actions against each other.

In making these commitments, Abe has gone further than any previous Japanese leader, yet he has received next to nothing in return. Indeed, as the Japanese stance has softened, Russia’s position has become even more assertive. This was evident in advance of the Moscow summit on January 22.

Firstly, on January 9, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador and reprimanded the Japanese leadership for “misleading the public” and “grossly distorting” the nature of the peace treaty talks. This criticism was particularly directed at Abe himself, who had earlier commented on the need to gain the understanding of the Russian residents of the Southern Kurils regarding the islands’ transfer to Japan.

A further setback followed on January 11 when Russia’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement asserting that, “The key condition for finding solutions to the peace treaty problem should be Tokyo’s full recognition of the outcome of the Second World War, including our country’s sovereignty over the Southern Kuril Islands.” This is tantamount to demanding that Japan renounce all claim to the disputed islands before serious discussions can even begin. Putin’s chief foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov added to the bad news by stating that, “This is our land, and no one intends to give this land away”.

Given this discordant prelude, it was no surprise when the summit itself delivered nothing of significance. After three hours of talks, Abe left Moscow with an agreement that the countries’ foreign ministers would meet again in mid-February. Russia also conceded to permit one charter flight to take elderly former Japanese residents to the disputed islands before the end of the year, as also occurred in 2017 and 2018.

Such meager results are an embarrassment for Japan’s supposedly star foreign policy performer. It is, of course, never easy to resolve territorial disputes, but the abject nature of Abe’s failure speaks to fundamental shortcomings in his approach.

Firstly, Abe has made concessions without receiving anything in return. This applies to his program of economic cooperation, as well as to his agreement to base negotiations on the 1956 Joint Declaration. Russia has been happy to pocket these gains and continue to ask for more.

Secondly, Abe has made no secret of his desperation to achieve a deal. This has been demonstrated by his willingness to dash to Russia at every opportunity and his frequent public statements about his determination to sign a peace treaty with his “own hand.” He has also made it personal by revealing that he is driven by a desire to complete the life’s work of his late father who, as foreign minister during the 1980s, worked tirelessly to normalize relations with Moscow. This shows the Russian side that they have the upper hand and can use time pressure to push Japan into further concessions as Abe’s term in office ticks towards its end.

Thirdly, Abe has been too optimistic about what can be achieved by means of his personal relationship with Putin. The Japanese leader has often spoken of their “relationship of trust” and has delighted in calling him “Vladimir.” Yet, it was naive to believe that such bonhomie could significantly influence Russian decision making. Japan is the United States’ key ally in East Asia and, as long as relations between Moscow and Washington remain tense, no Russian leader can place serious trust in their Japanese counterpart.

Fourthly, Abe has allowed himself to be badly advised. He has concentrated control over Russia policy within the prime minister’s office and reduced the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Additionally, Abe has come to rely heavily on the advice of Muneo Suzuki, who he often invites to the prime minister’s office, including on January 16. Suzuki is a former Diet member, who went to prison for corruption and was banned from political office until 2017. Suzuki remains defiantly optimistic about Japan’s chances of securing a territorial deal. More controversially, Suzuki has stated his belief that Russia did not take Crimea by force and has proposed that Abe should consider lifting sanctions. During the most recent cabinet reshuffle in October 2018, Suzuki’s daughter, Takako, was promoted to parliamentary vice-minister of defense.

In contrast with Abe’s amateurism, Russia’s approach has been calculating and highly disciplined. They have refrained from making any meaningful concessions of their own, yet have been careful to avoid extinguishing Japanese hopes entirely. By keeping the prospect of a territorial deal vaguely on the horizon, Moscow intends to extract further economic concessions and will use the issue to encourage Japan to distance itself from the United States.

Abe might like to think of himself as a seasoned international statesman, but his experience of dealing with Russia has demonstrated that he still has much to learn.

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