Michael Lipin reports for Voice of America (VOA) (via GlobalSecurity.org), February 12, 2014, that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying hard to improve relations with Russia, a neighbor with whom Tokyo has yet to sign a peace treaty after the end of World War II.
Since taking office in December 2012 Abe has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin five times. Their latest encounter was a significant gesture by the Japanese leader when Abe added prestige to Russia’s opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics by accepting Putin’s invitation to attend last Friday’s event in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Western leaders stayed away, in an apparent protest at Putin’s stance on homosexuals.
Abe also had a lunch meeting with Putin on Saturday and his commitment to make a rare visit to Japan in the second half of this year.
Abe has a variety of motivations for reaching out to Russia, which has been receptive to closer ties with Japan in some areas, but not others. Those motives include:
1. Asia Society analyst Ayako Doi told VOA that one factor driving Abe closer to Russia is a worsening of Japan’s relations with its two other regional neighbors, China and South Korea, both of whom have toughened their positions on maritime territorial disputes with Japan in recent years. Beijing and Seoul also have long resented what they see as Tokyo’s failure to atone for wartime aggression in the first half of the 20th century. ‘There is no improvement in sight for those relationships, so Abe is looking to Russia as a potential bright spot in his foreign policy initiatives,’ Doi told VOA.
2. Doi said Japan also wants to stop Putin from becoming an even closer ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping and potentially supporting China’s claims to Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea. Xi also attended the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony and won a meeting with Putin, although without the luncheon granted to Abe.
3. Another motivation behind Japan’s Russian outreach is its hope to resolve a decades-old territorial dispute that has held up the signing of a Japan-Russia peace treaty. Japan has long sought to reclaim four islands off the northern coast of Hokkaido from Russia, whose then-Soviet forces captured them in 1945, days before then end of World War II. James Schoff, an Asia analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Abe has reasons to be hopeful for a resolution of that dispute because both Japan and Russia acknowledge the dispute, and there is a history of negotiation between them, ever since the end of the war. All of which make the Japan-Russia territorial dispute more manageable for Japan than its maritime disputes with China and South Korea. “In those cases, the parties still are in a situation where neither side will acknowledge that a dispute even exists,” Schoff said. ‘The Koreans say Dokdo island in the Sea of Japan/East Sea is theirs and they are on it, and any claims to it by Japan are completely false. In the case of the East China Sea’s Senkaku islands, the Japanese insist the islands are Japan’s and under their administration, while China says Japan must at least acknowledge that there is a dispute over the islands [known in Chinese as Diaoyu].
In a gesture to Japan, Russia held a round of peace treaty negotiations at the level of deputy foreign minister in Tokyo on January 31. But, there was no breakthrough. Moscow reiterated its long-held stance on the four disputed islands that it calls the Southern Kurils, saying they became Russian as a result of World War Two. Japan considers the islands to be its Northern Territories. No date for further talks has been set.
Doi said the Russian leader currently has little reason to make territorial concessions, “For Russia, making the Japanese hopeful about an eventual signing of a treaty is a very good thing, because it can be dangled as a prize to entice Japanese investment and other types of cooperation.”
5. For its part, Moscow has a key incentive to boost its economic ties with Japan in areas such as energy, and Putin has made it a national priority to develop oil, gas and other resources in Russia’s Far East and Siberia – economically-neglected areas where Japanese investment would be welcome.
6. Schoff said Russia also has a motive to seek a better political alliance with Japan, “There is some worry in Moscow about China’s rising military budgets and military expansionist maneuvers in the maritime sphere. I think Russia likes to have friends in different places and would not mind having a stronger relationship with Japan as a counterweight in that regard.” But Doi said Moscow is unlikely to take Tokyo’s side in the dispute with Beijing about the East China Sea.