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The delusion of Abe’s Russia diplomacy

On April 27, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Moscow for a summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The meeting lasted about 3 hours and 10 minutes, of which the two leaders spent 50 minutes for a tete-a-tete with only their interpreters present. Abe and Putin agreed that (1) former Japanese residents of the Northern Territories will be allowed to visit their family graves on the islands in June; and (2) site survey teams consisting of personnel from both government and the private sector will be sent to the four islands in May as agreed in the last summit meeting held in Nagato City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, in December 2016.


“These events will have both former Japanese islanders and Russian residents of the islands experience various fruitful outcomes of bilateral cooperation regarding the four islands, which will contribute to better [mutual] understanding toward concluding a peace treaty between the two countries,” said a Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) official, giving high marks to Abe’s visit.


As part of strategic arrangements for negotiations on concluding a peace treaty including the resolution of the Northern Territories issue, the two countries demonstrated mutual cooperation and took a first step toward bilateral negotiations. Can we take this at face value?


The risk of flexibility in the Northern Territories issue


The driving force of Abe’s diplomacy toward Russia consists of the “axis” and two “wheels.” The axis comprises two individuals – Chief Secretary to the Prime Minister Takaya Imai, a former official of the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and Special Advisor to the Prime Minister Eiichi Hasegawa, also a former METI official. One of the two wheels is the project implemented by Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko, who is also in charge of economic cooperation with Russia, and CEO Tadashi Maeda of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation. The other wheel is the manipulation of public opinion in favor of Abe’s diplomacy by Muneo Suzuki, the head of New Party Daichi, and former members of MOFA’s “Russia School,” including Kazuhiko Togo and Masaru Sato, and reporters who sympathize with Abe.


In this way, the former METI officials take the lead in carrying out the scheme for joint economic activities under Abe’s diplomacy toward Russia. However, National Security Secretariat Secretary General Shotaro Yachi feels uncomfortable about the scheme, although he provides Abe with frank and appropriate advice. Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama and Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba – experts in international law – are on board with the scheme, although they remain cautious about Russia.


Past administrations have adhered to the stance advocated by MOFA’s conservative “Russia School,” which has asserted that the first step toward resolving the Northern Territories issue should be to have Russia recognize that the sovereignty of the four islands in dispute belongs to Japan. Abe shifted from this stance to the current flexible scheme in which negotiations with Russia first must be moved forward without insisting on Japan’s sovereignty over the islands. If things develop as Japan wishes, Tokyo could bring up the issue of sovereignty at a time deemed appropriate.


However, it should be noted that President Putin shores up his power base through advocacy of Slavic and specifically Russian culture. Putin’s idea of a “Russian Empire” is totally different from that of the Russian government in the 1990s.


On March 21, 1992, at the MOFA’s Iikura Guest House, then Russian Foreign Minister Vladimirovich Kozyrev made a secret proposal to then Japanese Foreign Minister Michio Watanabe, in which the two countries would first negotiate the reversion of Habomai and Shikotan islands and, in the case of an agreement, continue negotiations over the two other islands, Kunashiri and Etorofu. This secret proposal is described as the “day the Northern Territories were closest to being returned to Japan.” The Japanese government, adhering to the principle of en bloc reversion of the four islands, rejected Russia’s proposal.


In November 1997, there was the Krasnoyarsk Agreement, concluded between then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, in which the two leaders agreed to aim to resolve the territorial issue by 2000 and conclude a peace treaty.


Abe obviously learned lessons from this history between the two countries and devised his current flexible stance toward Russia.


President Putin’s policy is based on the historical view of Joseph Stalin: the current national border between Russia and Japan was drawn as a result of the victory of the former Soviet Union in World War II and the country obtained the Northern Territories as booty. If Abe proposes to Russia joint economic activities, putting aside the issue of sovereignty over the four islands, Russia could exploit this to gain economic benefits without returning the islands in dispute.


President Putin’s next term, if he is reelected, would run from May 2018 to May 2024. Abe regards the first three and half years of Putin’s next term as the most critical time for Japan to resolve the Northern Territories issue, because the power struggle over the next presidency will begin in Russia after that. This time frame would coincide with his reelection as the Liberal Democratic Party president for a third term in Sept. 2018. In a similar way, after his reelection as the LDP president (Sept 30, 2018), Abe’s leverage will probably decline with the approach of the end of his term in 2021. Under the circumstances, a summit meeting between the two leaders at the annual East Economic Forum slated for September 2018 may provide a golden opportunity to resolve the Northern Territories issue. This is because by then either Japan or Russia could make a proposal toward resolving the territorial issue based on ideas for clearing legal issues regarding the islands in dispute. However, unless Putin disavows Stalin’s historical view and seeks middle ground with Japan, the whole negotiation process might simply end in Abe’s using the momentum toward resolving the territorial issue for his reelection as LDP president for a third term. (Abridged)

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