The prospect of a constitutional amendment has been making headlines after proponents of revising the supreme law gained a two-third majority in both chambers of the Diet following the July 10 Upper House election. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s top political priority for the remainder of the year is not amending the Constitution, but holding talks with Russia to conclude a peace treaty and resolving the territorial dispute over the Russian-occupied islands off Hokkaido.
Abe has long maintained that the only way to resolve the territorial row with Moscow would be for him to talk directly with President Vladimir Putin. He has thus instructed officials of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry to secure as many opportunities as possible for one-on-one talks with Putin during his overseas tours this fall. It has already been decided that Abe and Putin will meet in the Russian port city of Vladivostok during the Eastern Economic Forum starting Sept. 2 and again on the sidelines of the Sept. 4-5 Group of 20 summit in Hangzhou, China. He looks forward to meeting with Putin again in late September during the United Nations General Assembly session in New York.
The two governments are also in talks for Putin’s visit to Japan in December on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which ended the state of war and restored diplomatic relations between Tokyo and Moscow. During his Upper House campaign in Sapporo last month, Abe said he was determined to push forward with the talks on concluding the peace treaty by inviting Putin to Japan “this year.”
It has been a year since Abe started zeroing in on and preparing for his Russian diplomacy. He visited Russia three times in a row, defying a normal diplomatic protocol of the heads of governments visiting each other alternately.
Why is it that Abe thinks now is the right time for promoting his diplomacy with Russia? A principal reason is that the United States will remain preoccupied with its presidential race for the rest of the year. In February, when Abe was preparing for a visit to Sochi in May to meet the Russian leader, U.S. President Barack Obama asked him in a telephone talk to reconsider the timing of his visit. Obama apparently thought Abe’s pursuit of dialogue with Putin could undermine the united stand taken by Japan and Western powers, accompanied by economic sanctions, against Russia in protest of its 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Abe managed to obtain Obama’s consent for his Sochi visit when they met on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit in March — but only after going through a cumbersome experience of being told what to do and not to do by Washington. A ranking official close to Abe confides that such U.S. pressure would ease during the American presidential race — and that Abe is determined to get things done before the new U.S. president takes office on Jan. 20 next year.
It must not be forgotten, however, that all those scenarios are based solely on one-sided speculation on the part of Abe, because Russia has not shown signs of offering any compromise on the territorial dispute.
Seen from Putin’s perspective, it seems obvious that the Russian leader cannot afford to spend time and energy on making concessions to Japan — just as his country is beset with international destabilizing issues like the chaos in Syria and the terrorist attacks in Nice and Munich. The expulsion of some Russian athletes from the Rio de Janeiro Olympics on doping charges has only exacerbated the problems he faces.
On Sept. 18, Russia will go to the polls for the election of the State Duma, the lower house of the Federal Assembly, which is held every five years. Knowing that the result of the election will have an important bearing on his bid for reelection in 2018, Putin tried to stir up patriotic sentiments among his citizens in a May speech. Under these circumstances, there appears to be no chance whatsoever of him making concessions to Japan on the territorial row.
The only potentially strong card Japan has vis-a-vis Russia is economic cooperation. Putin showed keen interest when Abe proposed at their Sochi meeting an eight-point cooperation program including industrial development in the Russian Far East and the provision of recycling technologies.
An official with the Prime Minister’s Office explains that Japan will seek to conclude the peace treaty talks on the potential strength of economic cooperation. The trouble is, however, that these two issues are not being handled by the same government body. The Prime Minister’s Office is responsible for economic cooperation while the matters related to the peace treaty are in the hands of the Foreign Ministry. This is said to have stemmed from concerns entertained by the Prime Minister’s Office that should everything be put in the hands of the Foreign Ministry, only economic cooperation will make headway.
But the result did not appear to change. Most of the high-ranking Russian officials who visited Japan following the Sochi meeting are in charge of economic affairs, like Deputy Prime Minister Yury Trutnev and Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukaev. The talks on the peace treaty, in contrast, have made little progress. Even after a six-hour marathon session in Tokyo on June 22 between Chikahito Harada, ambassador in charge of Russo-Japanese relations, and Vice Foreign Minister Igori Morgulov, both sides went no further than restating their own basic positions.
It should indeed be in Russia’s interest to push economic cooperation with Japan while leaving the territorial issue up in the air. A Russian government insider has stated, “Honestly speaking, our only interest regarding Japan lies in economic matters.”
For the past 3 1/2 years following his return to power, Abe has traveled literally around the world. But there is a limit to what he can accomplish diplomatically on such missions. He has succeeded in shifting the government’s diplomatic initiatives from the Foreign Ministry to his office. While this has strengthened his influence on foreign policy, it has also raised risks.
As has been the case with his signature economic policies, Abe appears to be telling the nation that there is no alternative to his present diplomacy. But everybody knows who would have to bear the cost should his policies fail.
For two days starting in the early hours of June 8, Chinese and Russian naval vessels simultaneously entered into the contiguous zones surrounding Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. The Foreign Ministry summoned Chinese Ambassador Cheng Yonghua at 2 a.m. to lodge a protest, but Tokyo only issued a notice to Russia — even though from the point of view of international law, the ships of both countries were engaged in identical acts.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga hinted that the tougher action against China was in retaliation for mounting tensions. Yet, it appears utterly unlikely that Japan is fully cognizant of Russia’s military intensions. Russia is pushing ahead with plans to turn the disputed islands off Hokkaido into bases for its military operations. It also completed renovation of a former Japanese Army airfield on Matua Island located near the center of the Kurils chain in June and will start building a naval base before the end of the year.
Abe is striving to enhance his ties with Putin, but apparently is disregarding Putin’s bid to take advantage of Japan’s weaknesses. It will be sooner rather than later that the outcome of Abe’s diplomatic gamble comes to light.
This is an abridged translation of an article from the August issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. English-language versions of the magazine’s articles can be read at www.sentaku-en.com
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