The Abe administration is eager to improve relations with Moscow and resolve the long-standing territorial dispute over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans to invite President Vladimir Putin to his home prefecture of Yamaguchi in December for a summit.

A political scenario circulating in Nagatacho goes that Abe will win a partial return of the islands through his talks with Putin — possibly Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets — and dissolve the Lower House for a snap election that his Liberal Democratic Party would then win by another landslide, riding on the wave of popular acclaim for his diplomatic achievement.

I view this scenario with skepticism since it is unlikely that Putin’s Russia — which has annexed Crimea, supported the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad in its massacre of civilians, and ignored international criticism over such acts — would hand over territory to Japan out of goodwill.

An Oct. 15 article by the Hokkaido Shimbun gave me a clue as to what could be Russia’s intentions. It reported that Russia is urging Japan to exclude any returned islands from coverage by the security treaty with the United States.

Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty stipulates that the pact covers “territories under the administration of Japan.” The Hokkaido Shimbun’s report suggests that Russia, by paying the price of returning a small part of the disputed territory, wants to open a crack in the Japan-U.S. security arrangement.

So far, Washington has condoned Abe’s moves to improve ties with Russia. But that may change if better Tokyo-Moscow ties affect the U.S.’ security alliance with Japan. Should Japan change the scope of the treaty’s coverage at its discretion, the U.S. might start saying, for example, that its obligations under the security treaty would not apply to the Senkaku Islands, because it does not want to confront China.

If the Abe administration cuts such a deal with Russia just as America’s leadership is in transition with the presidential election, the U.S. public could be further offended.

In such a case, the talks with Russia over the territorial dispute, instead of bringing a political windfall to the Abe administration, might leave the prime minister in a quagmire between the U.S. and Russia. I hear growing skepticism over the scenario of Abe holding a snap election on the strength of striking a long-awaited deal on the territorial row.

Strangely, Japan’s major national dailies do not appear to be following up on the Hokkaido Shimbun scoop. Are the major media trying to avoid disrupting the negotiations with Russia on which the Abe administration appears to be putting so much weight? Or could it be that the media, along with Abe’s office and the Foreign Ministry, are exploring possible ways that allow Japan to both maintain the security alliance with the U.S. and achieve progress in getting the islands back from Russia?

Abe advocates a closer and deeper alliance with the U.S. — and had security legislation enacted for that purpose. Deep inside, however, he must be frustrated with the U.S. because he can’t say or do as he wants on issues ranging from perspectives on World War II and his visits to Yasukuni Shrine because of pressures from Washington. It wouldn’t be surprising if that frustration is driving his pursuit of diplomacy independent of U.S. influence and a historic diplomatic achievement.

Abe likes to champion diplomacy based on values — which he seems to think binds countries that seek to keep China in check. But in his pursuit of closer ties with Moscow he should keep in mind that the rule of law and respect for human rights — values that he often touts in diplomacy — do not apparently suit Russia. True, the Abe administration seems unstoppable at home, but his quest for honor in the form of diplomatic feats could possibly be a trigger for the administration’s downfall.

It is indeed a major challenge for Japan’s government to settle the aftermath of World War II and finalize its borders with the nation’s neighbors. This must be resolved on the basis of law and justice equally with all other countries, with Japan sharing the significance of the last war with those nations. The Abe administration’s bid to use the territorial dispute with Russia for its political gains is quite risky.

Jiro Yamaguchi is a professor of political science at Hosei University in Tokyo.

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