Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is embarking on a diplomatic quest from Sunday that will take him halfway around the globe to Russia and the Middle East accompanied by dozens of top corporate executives, with one key goal in mind: energy.
Russia, in the shadow of the U.S. shale gas revolution and falling demand in Europe, is suddenly reaching out to hike its natural gas exports to Japan in a drastic policy shift. Abe, for his part, will try to use this newfound leverage to convince President Vladimir Putin to kick off fresh negotiations on the return of four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido and pry open the long-stalled territorial dispute.
In the Middle East, Abe’s tour will take him to Saudi Arabia and then to the United Arab Emirates, with securing oil supplies topping his agenda. While in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Abe is set to request that the oil field interests of Japanese companies be expanded, according to media reports.
Abe’s seven-day voyage will also see bilateral nuclear power pacts inked with the United Arab Emirates as well as with Turkey, the final leg of his trip, to ensure that Japan’s atomic energy technologies are used for peaceful purposes.
In light of the constraints imposed on the domestic nuclear market by the 2011 core meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 plant, Japan is trying to compensate by exporting its atomic technologies overseas. Looking to drum up businesses, executives from Toshiba Corp. and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd. will accompany Abe on his tour.
“I understand the largest-ever number of (corporate executives) will accompany (Abe), including those from Keidanren,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Tuesday, citing the nation’s biggest business lobby group. “We have many agenda (items) in Russia and the Middle East, including those related to energy.”
The highlight of Abe’s trip will be his meeting with Putin on Monday, an encounter that will test his diplomatic mettle. Experts say the strategic dynamic of Russo-Japanese relations has significantly changed in the past few years, giving Abe a stronger hand than ever in dealing with Moscow over the sovereignty of the four islands seized by Soviet forces weeks after Japan’s surrender in World War II.
“Japan’s position is stronger than before. The environment has greatly changed,” said Shigeki Hakamada, a leading Russia expert and professor at University of Niigata Prefecture.
In addition to Russia’s urgent need to sell natural gas to Japan, where Abe’s team is doing everything it can to restart dozens of idled reactors to return to nuclear power, Moscow now has many other motives for seeking to expand economic and diplomatic cooperation with Tokyo, Hakamada pointed out.
Russia’s Far East, for instance, has been unable to stop an ongoing population drain that saw it fall to 6.27 million last year from 8.06 million in 1991. Moscow is also deeply concerned over China’s growing economic and political clout in the region and wants to improve ties with Tokyo to keep Beijing in check, according to Hakamada.
“Russia is now looking at Asia. With its population decreasing, Russia wants to tap the growth of the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.
Moscow also has set a strategic goal to reduce its dependence on natural resource-related industries. For Russia, Japan, which grew into one of the world’s leading economies despite its scarcity of natural resources, is an ideal partner with the technologies and knowhow that Moscow now desperately requires, Hakamada said.
Getting Russia to hand back the disputed isles, which consist of the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, has been a goal of Japanese governments for generations. But Russia has followed the Soviet Union’s policy of ignoring Japan’s claim to the islands throughout the Cold War.
Technically, the two countries remain in a state of war, as the territorial row has prevented them from concluding a peace treaty to formally end hostilities.
In 1956, Japan and the Soviet Union signed a joint statement agreeing to continue talks on a peace accord. They also concurred that two of the four territories, Shikotan and the Habomai islets, will be returned after the conclusion of a peace treaty. Putin has consistently suggested he might consider handing over the two islands as per the 1956 statement, depending on the conditions offered by Japan.
Yet Habomai and Shikotan account for only 7 percent of the total area of the four islands, and Tokyo has persistently demanded the reversion of all four at the same time.
So the issue boils down to who will blink first: Will Russia agree to return more than the two islands or will Japan abandon its hopes of getting back all four?
The answer may lie somewhere in the middle.
To lay the ground work for Abe’s trip, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori visited Moscow in February and proposed to Putin that he and Abe instruct their diplomats to come up with a solution in a time frame acceptable to both sides.
Tokyo’s strategy is to offer Moscow a lucrative carrot — the extension of substantial economic cooperation to help develop Russia — to win concessions on the sovereignty dispute. During Abe’s trip, Japan is set to host economic seminars in Moscow to show off possible joint projects in agriculture, medical services and urban development that will be attended by many major Japanese companies.
“We are going to give Russia a glimpse of a list of benefits they will get” if they make substantial compromises on the territorial issue, a senior government official said in Tokyo.
But despite the shifting nature of bilateral ties and Japan’s readiness to extend economic assistance, Hakamada of the University of Niigata Prefecture argued this won’t be enough to convince Putin to hand over all four islands. While the Russian president may feign flexibility on their reversion to win economic projects from Japan, he is unlikely to make any substantial compromise, Hakamada said.
When Hakamada visited Moscow in March and met with a number of key players in Russian politics, including parliamentary chiefs, senior diplomats and other opinion makers, all of them agreed that Putin is unlikely to make any major territorial concessions and will never return Etorofu and Kunashiri to Japan’s jurisdiction.
The Russian military and security forces are particularly opposed to conceding to Japan’s demands, Hakamada said, while the public’s growing nationalistic sentiment is another big factor weighing on Putin.
“In Japan, it is often believed that Putin is a strong leader who can make a decision on the territorial issue at his own discretion. But Putin’s power base is not that strong now,” Hakamada said.
“If Japan decides to give up Etorofu and Kunashiri for good, Putin may start seriously thinking about returning Shikotan and Habomai. But that would just go back to the 1956 statement and would mean a complete defeat for (postwar) Japanese diplomacy,” he said.