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Abe’s Diplomacy at a Crossroads: The Hidden Side of the Japanese-Russian Summit

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Tokyo Report

Abe’s Diplomacy at a Crossroads: The Hidden Side of the Japanese-Russian Summit

The Japanese PM’s approach to Russia is looking increasingly risky.

Abe’s Diplomacy at a Crossroads: The Hidden Side of the Japanese-Russian Summit
Credit: Presidential Press and Information Office

The traditional overseas trip by the Japanese prime minister during the recent Golden Week break took place amid a land-sale scandal that involved Prime Minister Shinzo Abe himself, as well as a succession of other scandals that involved a number of his cabinet ministers. Departing Japan, Abe’s first destination was Russia. Following the “success” of the Japan-Russia summit in December last year, the stated purpose of the visit was to move forward with the agreement reached at that summit, toward a resolution of the Northern Territories issue, involving the question of disputed islands north of Hokkaido.

So what really was the outcome of the Abe-Putin summit talks on April 27? As usual, the prime minister’s office labeled them a “success.” But what progress was made in discussions on the expansion of “visa-free” travel by former islanders to visit ancestral graves, and on carrying out joint economic activities in a form that does not compromise Japanese or Russian sovereignty over the Northern Territories, both of which were promised at the previous talks?

Regarding the issue of visits to ancestral graves, former islanders will be transported by air on Russian chartered aircraft from Nemuro Nakashibetsu to Kunashiri and Etorofu. In addition, a new checkpoint will be opened to facilitate entry to the Habomai Islands, an area that was previously difficult to access directly. On the issue of joint economic activities, a Japanese-Russian investigative group will be organized to conduct an on-site survey.

Set out in this way it would appear that the pace of action is accelerating, but in fact there is little that is new. Abe emphasizes that transport by air is a historical first, yet air travel to the islands was in operation at one point in 2000. It was also possible to access the Habomai Islands in the past, so this new announcement is really just a revival of that practice. The investigative group is also hardly unique; rather, it simply allows specialists to travel to the islands without the usual visa, and does not go significantly beyond the longstanding arrangement of limiting travel to seismic and other experts.

In addition, visits to ancestors’ graves by chartered aircraft are referred to as “special visits to ancestors’ graves,” and may be granted for a single visit only. Moreover, a considerable number of gravesites on Etorofu and Kunashiri are located far from the airport with no access by road, so currently only a limited number of places are accessible. Border crossings to the Habomai Islands too have been limited to a single visit within this year’s regulation of “visa-free” travel, and had been decided prior to the prime minister’s visit. As for the investigative group for joint economic activities, who will go and what they will do there has yet to be determined, and there is no guarantee that their survey will lead to actual business outcomes.

Some critics have noted that these outcomes had already been decided at the administrative vice-ministers’ conference held prior to Abe’s visit, and are not in fact the result of that visit. From the press conference Abe held with Russian President Vladimir Putin it is clear that, as with the summit in December, no progress was made on the Northern Territories issue itself. Not only was the phrase “resolution of the Territories issue” not used once at the press conference, but as with the press conference in Tokyo in December, Putin spoke at length about the economy, making only brief reference to the “peace treaty” toward the end, which he said should be in a form that was advantageous for both countries. Abe too, as before, emphasized his accomplishments, praising himself for making it possible for former residents of the islands to visit the graves of their ancestors by airplane with reference to the letter from former residents of the islands, and making it sound as though progress had also been made on joint economic activities, with no mention whatsoever of the Territories issue.

Many observers in Japan welcomed the outcome of the talks publicly, but privately expressed “disappointment” and “resignation.” This was a clear indication of the internal conflict many feel. At a time when the return of even the two islands of Shikotan and Habomai appears hopeless, the fact that methods of travel for former residents of the islands have expanded, making it easier for them to visit the islands, is in itself welcome, even as they remain deeply resentful that no mention at all has been made of the return of the territories. On the other hand, they view the progress of joint economic activities with caution, for if these proceed, they will complicate requests for compensation in respect of assets left behind on the islands.

Meanwhile, the development of the Nemuro region, which adjoins the Northern Territories, had been hampered by prohibitions on business and free travel between Nemuro and the islands. So joint economic activities that involve doing business with the islands, no matter what form they take, are much anticipated. Nevertheless, there are concerns regarding travel to the island by airplane. These concerns stem from the fact that if business with the islands goes to plan, there is a possibility that airplanes may fly direct to the islands from Sapporo Chitose, bypassing Nemuro, with any benefits going to Sapporo or even outside Hokkaido. That leaves Nemuro a loser in either case.

From the perspective of the business community, the resolution of the Northern Territories issue is not a priority at all, just as long as they profit through trade with Russia. Aircraft will be operated on the pretext of allowing former residents of the islands to travel on it, and the limitations of “visa-free” travel will be extended to business on the pretext of unfettered economic activity. Needless to say, the direction in which they are moving does not necessarily coincide with the interests of Nemuro nor with those of former residents of the islands.

Thus, the three parties may appear to welcome Abe’s initiatives, but their think differs. In reality, each seek their own advantage under the mantra of “moving forward on the Northern Territories issue.”

For now, there is nothing to indicate how Abe’s key initiatives will subsequently unfold. Even if all the latest plans materialize, there is no guarantee they will be sustainable, and even if they are, it is doubtful that they will lead to the resolution of the Northern Territories issue.

In this sense, the purpose of the government’s latest visit to Russia is to recover, to some extent at least, from the failure of the December summit meeting, which was hailed as a decisive win for Putin. Leaving aside the question of the future, it can be considered as a kind of gambit to show the public that things are now moving.

In the context of the current international climate, however, the timing of this gambit could not have been worse. In addition to the Ukraine issue, which necessitated the imposition of sanctions on Russia by the G7 powers, Japan and Russia now differ on other issues that previously posed relatively few conflicts, most notably North Korea and Syrian. On the latter, Japan had no option but to support the U.S. strike on Syria; and as for the former, Russia has blocked Washington’s call for action, adopting a stance that emphasizes a peaceful resolution of the North Korean issue.

Going forward, Japan has no choice but to continue to support the U.S. stance, so the recent tensions in U.S.-Russian relations will cast a dark cloud over improved relations with Russia. Anti-Putin hardliner Fiona Hill, a strategic expert on Russia at the Brookings Institution and co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, has been named as a possible Russia policy brain in the increasingly troubled Trump administration. Given recent revelations, there is a high likelihood that relations between the United States and Russia will only become more complicated, and pressure on Japan will increase. Abe’s attempts to achieve better relations with Russia with no regard for how his actions may appear are now looking increasingly risky.

Akihiro Iwashita is a professor of the Slavic Research Center at Hokkaido University and also a professor of the Center for Asia Pacific Future Studies at Kyushu University. This article was revised and modified by the writer based on a piece previously published in the Japanese version of the Huffington Post.