MOSCOW – Ahead of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Russia, he repeated a single message to the Diet and the media for weeks: He wants to build a personal relationship of trust with President Vladimir Putin.
The emphasis appears to be part of Japan’s efforts to enhance ties with partners such as the United States and Europe as it struggles to cover the loss of sound relations with geographically closer neighbors — China and South Korea — amid their concerns over a widely perceived shift to the right by Abe.
After two hours of talks in the Kremlin, Abe and Putin agreed to order their foreign ministers to reopen talks on finding options for creating closer ties that could be presented to the leaders.
Abe, making the first high-level official visit by a Japanese prime minister to Moscow in a decade, hailed the outcome as a “great result.”
A joint declaration by the two leaders agreed it was “abnormal” that their countries have not signed a peace treaty 67 years after the end of World War II. They expressed determination to overcome “the existing differences” on the territorial dispute through talks although there was no concrete suggestion of what solution could end the years of deadlock.
The strategy to enhance ties with Russia has benefits for Japan. However, it is uncertain whether it can survive the turbulence without easing those concerns and overcoming differences between Japan and other countries in the region over their understanding of history.
“I was able to build personal trust with the president,” Abe said at a joint news conference with Putin following their meeting Monday in Moscow.
For Abe, mutual trust with Putin may help accelerate stalled talks over the ownership of Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.
Abe has tied his fortunes to a right-leaning political stance that has irritated some neighboring countries that were victims of Japan’s wartime aggression. By moving closer to Russia while seeking to skirt criticism from Asia, Abe may be able to reasonably argue to the public that he is upholding the national interests.
In addition, by strengthening business cooperation, as agreed by the two leaders Monday, Japan hopes to import oil and gas from Russia’s Far East at cheaper rates as it struggles to cover the loss of nuclear power following the Fukushima crisis.
A Japanese official said Abe and Putin “exchanged opinions in a frank and concentrated manner” and that the prime minister’s visit gave momentum and “long-term direction” to Japan-Russia relations.
But a closer partnership with Russia is not a guarantee that Japan can get by without consultations with China and South Korea, particularly when the security environment in Asia remains unstable. North Korea’s latest nuclear test in February has also alarmed the United States and raised the need to resume the six-nation talks to address that problem.
Japan has said it wants to cooperate with the U.S. and South Korea on the issue in a well-orchestrated fashion while calling for China’s aggressive involvement to persuade Pyongyang to end its nuclear programs.
Officials in Tokyo acknowledge that while Japan may leave frictions with China and South Korea unaddressed in the short term, the strained ties will only harm security interests if North Korea continues its defiant behavior.
The tensions with neighboring countries will last as long as Abe leaves them nervous about his views on history. Tensions could further increase as the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II draws near.
Abe earlier said it was his “greatest regret” that he did not visit the war-related Yasukuni Shrine on that date when he was prime minister five years ago.
The shrine, honoring convicted Class-A war criminals along with millions of Japanese war dead, is seen by some Asian countries as a symbol of the country’s former militarism.
It is still anybody’s guess whether Abe will visit the shrine on this year’s anniversary.
A number of lawmakers, including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, visited the shrine last month to mark its spring festival, a move that triggered fierce criticism from Beijing and Seoul.
South Korea immediately canceled a trip to Tokyo by its foreign minister while a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors from the three countries, scheduled for early May, was called off at the urging of this year’s chair, China. Aso doubles as finance minister.
While refraining from visiting Yasukuni last month, Abe sent an offering. Regardless, he is apparently trying to prevent a further escalation in bad feelings.
British paper slams Abe
The Financial Times has blasted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for making an offering to Yasukuni Shrine and for his controversial remarks on Japanese history.
With the offering of a “masakaki” cypress tree branch last week to the Tokyo shrine where Class-A war criminals are honored together with 2 million of the nation’s war dead, Abe “has let the mask slip,” opening a window on “his inner nationalism,” the British paper said in an editorial Monday.
“Worse, he appeared to question whether Japan had been ‘aggressive’ in the Second World War, a rightwing hobby horse,” it said.
While acknowledging that “his wish to be able to mourn his country’s war dead is not unreasonable,” it said that Yasukuni is the “wrong place to do it” because it is “irredeemably associated with the nationalist cult of emperor worship.”
He should take advantage of the support he has among the nation’s rightwing political and ideological forces “to push for the establishment of a less controversial secular memorial,” it said.
Highlights of Abe-Putin statement
Japan and Russia agreed Monday to:
• Accelerate efforts to address the territorial row over Russian-held islands off Hokkaido and sign a peace treaty.
• Increase contacts, including reciprocal visits by leaders and dialogue between foreign and defense ministers.
• Accuse North Korea of not abandoning its nuclear and missile development programs.
• Strengthen business ties, including further cooperation in developing Russia’s Far East.