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Japan courts Russia at Sochi summit

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Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe prior to their talks in Sochi, Russia, 6 May 2016. (Photo: AAP).

In Brief

The two most prominent features of Japanese foreign policy are caution and the US alliance. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s decision to travel to Sochi for a summit with President Vladimir Putin on 6 May was therefore remarkable.


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The visit comes at a time when Russia remains under international sanctions and the United States has made it clear that it intends to maintain a policy of isolation. Indeed, in a February phone call President Obama directly urged Abe to abandon the visit. So what explains this uncharacteristically bold step? And did it pay off?

There appear to be two main reasons for Abe’s visit. The first and most important is his desire to achieve a solution to the countries’ longstanding territorial dispute and to sign a peace treaty before the end of his time in office.

The second reason relates to strategic considerations in East Asia. One of the Abe administration’s major security concerns is whether it can permanently rely on the United States to protect Japan from regional threats, especially an increasingly assertive China. In a bid to reduce their dependence on the United States, the Abe administration has sought to increase the capacity of Japan’s own armed forces and to build closer ties with other countries in the region. In this context, better relations with Russia make sense as a way of drawing Moscow away from Beijing and of ensuring amicable relations with one of Japan’s nearest neighbours.

These two goals have meant that relations with Russia have been a priority throughout Abe’s second spell in office. Abe has met Putin 13 times, more than he has met President Obama. But most of these have been brief meetings on the sidelines of international fora and a full-scale summit has not taken place since April 2013. This means that the Sochi meeting was of particular significance.

What were the results?

On the territorial dispute, the most striking outcome was Abe’s claim that ‘we agreed to resolve the peace treaty issue by ourselves as we seek to build a future-oriented relationship. We will proceed with the negotiations with a new approach, free of any past ideas’. He also told reporters that ‘I have a sense that we are moving toward a breakthrough’.

But there seems little justification for Abe’s optimism since nothing of any substance was agreed on the territorial issue. The only concrete outcome was confirmation that the next in a series of meetings at deputy foreign minister level would take place in June.

What was more noticeable was what was not announced. There was no mention of a date for Putin’s long delayed visit to Japan, which was originally expected to take place in 2014. Prior to the Sochi meeting, there were rumours that Abe was planning to invite Putin to his home prefecture of Yamaguchi. Such a trip would raise expectations in Japan of an imminent breakthrough on the territorial dispute.

The fact that no date was announced indicates that progress on the territorial issue remains elusive. Certainly, Russian officials have made no mention of any ‘new approach’ on the issue. In his post-summit press conference, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said nothing about the territorial dispute at all.

There was genuine progress, though, on economic cooperation. Russia is keen to boost bilateral trade and to attract more Japanese investment, which is highly valued in Russia. As such, the Russian side will be greatly interested in Abe’s proposal of an eight-point economic cooperation plan, which includes suggestions on how Japan could contribute to the development of the Russian Far East.

To capitalise on the positive momentum, Putin invited Abe to attend the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on 2–3 September. Yuri Trutnev, Presidential Envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, will also visit Japan in mid-May to discuss investment opportunities. One of the most likely areas for increased cooperation is the oil and gas sector. Igor Sechin, head of the state-controlled oil company Rosneft, was present at the summit and eagerly promoted opportunities for Japanese investment in Russian energy projects.

Japan intends to use the promise of increased economic cooperation as a means of encouraging territorial concessions. Japan has no doubt been encouraged by Russia’s recent economic difficulties. And yet there is no indication that economic incentives are capable of inducing Russia to go beyond its current offer of transferring the two smallest disputed islands to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty.

Overall, Russia is likely to be happier about the outcome of the Sochi summit than Japan. Abe’s visit has not only increased the prospect of increased economic ties, but has also raised significant doubts about the unity of G7 policy towards Russia. According to Lavrov, the two leaders also discussed the prospect of reviving the ‘2+2’ talks. This format, which brings together countries’ foreign and defence ministers, is usually reserved for close partners and would be a further sign that Russia’s isolation is coming to an end.

As for the Japanese side, while Abe may not have achieved any genuine progress on the territorial dispute, this does not mean that his trip should be regarded as a failure. Abe’s decision to travel to Russia in spite of US warnings, and to propose a new level of economic cooperation, may prove to be an important step in pursuing a stronger long-term relationship with Russia.

James D. J. Brown is an associate professor of political science at Temple University, Japan Campus.

Andrei I. Kozinets is an assistant professor of international relations at Far Eastern Federal University, Vladivostok.

6 responses to “Japan courts Russia at Sochi summit”

    • Many thanks for reading the article. The key point here is that the Japanese side evidently believes that China has become more assertive in the region and has adapted its foreign policy accordingly.

      In any case, there is ample evidence to back up the claim that China has indeed become more assertive in recent years, e.g. its increased maritime activities in the South and East China Seas. This is not, of course, the same as saying that China’s actions are necessarily aggressive.

  1. Putin will never give up the two larger, more populated islands of the so called Northern Territories. Abe is trying to put a positive spin on what his meeting accomplished. More investment in Russian energy projects and other economic ventures could certainly help Japan’s economy. But Putin is not an ‘ally’ to be trusted.

  2. I agree. Indeed, one of the main purposes of my recent book on the subject was to explain exactly why Russia will not countenance any concessions on the two larger islands. The issue is that Abe does not seem to understand this. Instead, he seems to believe he can use economic leverage and his supposedly good personal ties with Putin to secure a deal. He overestimates the strength of Japan’s negotiating position.

    • Remember GW Bush’s comments about having looked into Putin’s eyes and seeing he could trust the man?!? Either Bush and Abe are foolish or Putin is very skilled at convincing people when he meets them that he is someone they ‘can do business with.’ Events in Crimea and Syria in recent months have proven where his true motivations lie…..

      • Putin does indeed seem skilled at convincing others to see in him what they want to see. Abe, in particular, seems convinced that a favourable territorial deal will be possible if bilateral relations become sufficiently strong. This serves the Russian interests as they are eager for increased economic cooperation with Japan. In reality, however, no amount of economic cooperation will lead Russia to cede sovereignty over the two larger islands.

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