What Japan-Russia Rapprochement Means for the World


The recent Japan-Russia rapprochement staged by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is both spectacular and audacious given the tectonic shift it represents in the post-war diplomacy Japan conducted so far with Russia.

Details of this Japanese “new approach” to Russia have already been abundantly discussed in The Diplomat. It represents a clear departure from the customary reticence of Japan’s diplomacy whenever it comes to shifting closer to a power considered an adversary to Japan’s over-shadowing ally, the United States. This traditional timidity can be understood given the number of post-war Japanese leaders who have politically “crashed” after attempting to mend fences with powers such as Communist China at a pace and a scope exceeding Washington’s tolerance.

Abe’s current “Russia initiative” (including huge economic cooperation for the development of the Russian Far East, elevation of this bilateral cooperation to the ministerial level, and a formal invitation for Putin to visit Japan in December), launched against President Barack Obama’s advice, could therefore, in an ordinary time, entail strong reactions from the United States, with unpredictable consequences for its architect, especially in the context of G7 sanctions against Moscow for its aggressive behavior in Ukraine.

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But this is no ordinary time.

A Once in a Lifetime Geopolitical Window

The admirable part of Abe’s initiative is the skillful way in which he has seized the once in a lifetime geopolitical window to attempt a breakthrough in the seven decade-long deadlock in Japan-Russia relations — and practically gotten away with it. These relations have centered on the dispute over the four northern islands taken by force by the former Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

Although Japan was compelled as a G7 member to take punitive steps against Putin’s Russia for its behavior in Ukraine, the only Asian member of G7 entertains only a polite and lukewarm interest in what happens in far away Eastern Europe. Rather than seriously applying sanctions against Moscow, Tokyo is more interested in normalizing its post-war relations with Russia (the two countries have yet to conclude a peace treaty after the last world war) by strengthening economic ties to the point that such ties will hopefully soften Putin’s stance on the eventual return of the disputed four islands.

The current window of opportunity is actually a confluence of political situations in Russia, the United States, and Europe. The timing of Abe’s daring initiative should therefore be considered in light of these situations.

Following seven decades of futile negotiations with Moscow, Tokyo has walked away with the conviction that, if the very sensitive territorial issue is ever to be solved, it can only happen under the strong leadership of the autocratic Vladimir Putin. The fact that Putin is a confirmed judoka, with personal interest in Japan and a personal friendship with Abe based on unusually frequent meetings, adds fuel to this expectation.

While tensions remain high between the West and Moscow over Ukraine, a Japan-Russia rapprochement, coming with huge economic cooperation deals and honoring Putin with a visit to Japan, constitutes a clear violation of the G7 sanctions against Russia and would normally draw the ire of fellow G7 members. However, the G7 countries, except Canada, are all mired in such troubling domestic situations that none of them seem in a position to effectively object to Abe’s breach of the group’s solidarity.

Indeed, what better timing can Abe expect to push forward his bold “Russia initiative”?

The United States is in the midst of a highly unusual presidential election. Not only does the lame-duck outgoing President Barack Obama have no effective means to dissuade Abe from leaning toward Moscow but, come November, there is a chance for America to elect an unprecedentedly Russia-friendly president in the person of Donald Trump. Of course, if the new tenant at the White House turns out to be Hillary Clinton, Abe could be in trouble with Washington next year. But then, politics are always a gamble.

The European G7 partners are in no better shape, at this moment, to object to the Japan-Russia rapprochement. Britain is in a deep identity crisis following Brexit. France is facing mounting terrorism at home and the unpopular President Francois Hollande will certainly be replaced in next year’s presidential election. There is even a slight chance that the new French president might be the far-right Marine Le Pen, who would probably see no evil in Abe’s doing Putin a favor. Germany’s Angela Merkel will be busy fighting for her own political survival over the refugee crisis. The risk of default is again looming in Italy. Who then in Europe has the leisure of caring that Abe is giving Putin a break from the G7 sanctions?

In a sense, the new approach with Russia in the hope of securing the return of at least some of the northern islands represents a last chance for Abe to build a lasting legacy before his mandate expires in 2018. His trademark Abenomics is generally deemed as a failure so far. His signature promise to bring back Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea decades ago has been met with Pyongyang’s missile tests. His attempts at mending fences with China did not stop the latter from giving him a cold shoulder in the tense East and South China Seas. Ties with South Korea remain strained despite a face-saving deal to end the “comfort women” issue. Two years after his chest pumping promise that “everything is under control,” the colossal task of clearing up the mess of the Fukushima nuclear disaster remains, well, a mess.

Playing into Putin’s Global Strategy?

From a global geopolitical viewpoint, Abe’s new “Russia initiative,” however spectacular and epoch-making it may seem from the Japanese viewpoint, runs the risk of falling into the dragnet of the rapidly expanding sphere of Russian influence in the world at Vladimir Putin’s instigation.

The Russian leader has succeeded in driving a wedge in Ukraine against Western Europe and NATO’s advance toward Russian borders. Then, before anyone knew it, Putin’s Russia became one of the major players in Middle East, having imposed itself as an indispensable interlocutor in the Syrian conflict and in the fight against Islamic State. Under Putin’s skillful diplomatic maneuvers, Turkey, an important NATO member, is showing worrying signs of wavering and of edging closer to Moscow, adding new fragility to NATO’s frontline vis-à-vis Russia and the Islamic State.

Even in the United States, Russian influence over Donald Trump, the Republican candidate who may be the next president, is no longer a secret and gives credit to the spooky prediction that America will end up having an unabashedly Russian-friendly president.

Back in Asia, Russia has always used the bait of the eventual return of the disputed northern islands to get the most economic cooperation out of Japan, sometimes playing the Japan card in its dealings with China and vice versa. This was the case when Russia was negotiating the sale of Siberian natural gas to China and Japan.

With the tension rising in East China Sea, thanks to the Sino-Japanese feud over the Senkaku Islands, and in the South China Sea, Russia is making its presence felt in these areas by seemingly teaming up with China in some cases. Russian and Chinese warships have jointly and “inadvertently” sailed through territorial waters off the disputed Senkaku Islands, much to Tokyo’s dismay. Recently, Russian and Chinese navies conducted a joint naval drill in the South China Sea, giving the impression that Moscow supports China’s claims in this region. Moreover, Russia is suspected of discreetly helping the saber-rattling North Korea develop its nuclear and missile technologies, adding to the tension in the Far East.

All things considered, from a global perspective, one can thus see (1) Russia encroaching on America’s vital alliances at both the western (Turkey) and eastern (Japan) ends of Asia; (2) growing Russian attempts at influencing U.S. politics at the highest level; (3) Russian attempts at influencing far-right parties in Europe; (4) increasing Russian influence in the muddy Middle East situation; (5) and, in the Far East, the rock-solid U.S.-Japan-South Korea alliance facing the former and current Communist bloc (Russia, China, North Korea) showing cracks with Japan nudging closer to Russia and with South Korea’s rapprochement with China.

Given these seemingly coordinated Russian geopolitical advances in the world to the detriment of the U.S.-led alliances, it would be legitimate to wonder whether Abe, by going out of his way to court Putin in the desperate hope of solving the long-standing territorial issue, will not simply play into the latter’s cold global strategic calculations, all the while ruining G7 solidarity. The fact that Tokyo and Moscow have started a dialogue on security matters can only confirm Washington’s suspicion of a Russian effort to drag Japan away from the United States, strategically speaking.

Besides, it is hardly imaginable that the tough Russian leader would be softened by the Japanese charm offensive and shows of personal friendship into accepting a politically near-impossible territorial concession. After all, Putin, who has to answer to his own nationalistic electoral constituency, has yet to give the Japanese any hint of a territorial concession. Instead, he has declared that there will be no trading of any territory for economic cooperation. This being said, the landslide victory of Putin’s governing party in the September 18 lower house election should allow the Russian leader some breathing room for more flexibility over the territorial issue. Besides, the eagerness he has shown in accepting the invitation to visit Japan seems to betray a desire of his own to open a breach in the deadlocked bilateral relations.

Even if, after all, Putin does accept handing the two smaller of the four islands back to Japan, the price he will ask for this political high risk “gift” should inevitably be something Abe and his American ally can hardly swallow.

We should know more about this in December when Putin will be the first Russian president to set foot in Japan in six years.

Chen Yo-jung is a retired French diplomat of Asian ancestry who had been posted in Tokyo, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Singapore, and Beijing.    

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