Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and attended the Winter Olympics opening ceremony on Feb. 8 in Sochi, Russia. Abe’s presence at the opening ceremony was made all the more conspicuous by the absence of U.S. President Barack Obama and many Western European leaders, who boycotted the event in protest of Russia’s enactment of anti-gay legislation last year. The meeting between Abe and Putin was their fifth in a year. More important than just holding frequent meetings is for Japan to discern Putin’s true intentions and work out a strategy to accelerate negotiations aimed at resolving the two nations’ territorial dispute — involving three Japanese islands and a group of small islets off Hokkaido that were illegally seized by Russia in the closing days of World War II — and signing a peace treaty to bring a formal end to hostilities.
In their meeting last April in Moscow, Abe and Putin said in a joint statement that their countries will seek to “work out a solution acceptable to both sides over the peace treaty issue.” The Sochi meeting produced some results. Abe and Putin agreed not only to meet again during a June Group of Eight industrialized countries summit in Sochi, but also on a visit by Putin to Japan in October or November. Abe and Putin also agreed to promote bilateral security dialogue and enhance comprehensive economic cooperation, including Japanese investment in developing oil and gas reserves in the Russian Far East. After the meeting, Putin hailed expanded bilateral trade and said, “We have seen a good environment be created that could help resolve the most difficult problem in bilateral relations.” Abe stated, “Japan and Russia must address difficult problems as soon as possible and conclude a peace treaty.” He added that the territorial dispute “should not be left to the next generation.”
Putin is clearly interested in expanding economic ties with Japan. Abe needs to ensure that negotiations on the territorial dispute remain at the forefront of bilateral discussions, and use economic cooperation as a carrot to reward progress on the territorial dispute.
Abe deserves praise for his efforts to build better ties with Russia and eagerness to resolve the territorial issue. But he must realize that his recent visit to Yasukuni Shrine — which angered China and South Korea, and prompted the United States, the European Union, Russia and even Singapore to express their disagreement or regret — weakened Japan’s negotiating position. As long as Japan is embroiled in disputes with its neighbors — essentially isolating itself in Northeast Asia — Russia will be in a stronger negotiating position. It is imperative that Abe make strenuous efforts to improve Japan’s relations with China and South Korea.
Abe should realize that his revisionist views of Japan’s wars in the 1930s and 1940s, and his determination to revise the Constitution, are having a detrimental effect on Japan’s diplomacy. He must take decisive action to rebuild international trust in him.