Say what you will about Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, he is a glutton for punishment. Too bad his bravado is not matched by canny discernment. Case in point is his plan to visit Russian President Vladimir Putin to follow up on the recent fiasco in Japan. In December, Abe came away from his 24 hours with Putin, his 16th face-to-face meeting, looking diminished and naive.
In the run up to the December hot-spring get-together, Team Abe raised hopes in Japan that there might be a possibility that Putin would return two of the four islands in the disputed Northern Territories, but reality set in when the Russians explained the lay of the land to Abe and his entourage at the November APEC Summit in Peru. Abe emerged from the meeting deflated, but put a brave face on matters by suggesting that progress on resolving the dispute requires an incremental approach. Over the next few weeks, both sides downplayed expectations for any breakthrough, but the recent tete-a-tete proved even more disappointing than anticipated.
Worse, Putin humiliated Abe, keeping the host waiting for hours and offering no face-saving concession or glimmer of hope. He even refused the offer of another Akita dog. Craven Team Abe stooped to running interference for Putin to ensure he would face no embarrassing questions from the international press about the ongoing bombings in Syria or Russia’s role in tampering with the U.S. presidential election to help Donald Trump, issues that were in the global media spotlight.
Abe has met with Putin more than any other leader in the world and even went to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics, the only G-7 leader to do so, in an effort to curry favor. He has defied the G-7’s policy of diplomatic isolation, which was put in place due to Russia’s seizure of the Crimea and efforts to sabotage Ukraine. It’s no secret that Putin is an unscrupulous strongman, but is Abe really comfortable dealing with a leader who states that the greatest tragedy of the 20th century was the dissolution of the Soviet Empire?
Putin distracts the Russian public from the failing economy, endemic corruption and political repression by unleashing the Russian military on civilians and weak states. He may not be the world’s most malicious despot, but he is in the running and certainly the most influential. His 80 percent approval rating is touted as a sign of his popularity, but is equally a barometer of tyranny and how effectively the state manages the media.
Putting aside the fact that diplomacy sometimes requires dealing with the devil, why has Team Abe misread all Russia’s signals on the Northern Territories, the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido? Russian polls in November indicated 71 percent of the public opposes the return of two islands and 78 percent oppose the return of all four. More importantly, with the economy in shambles, Putin’s popularity rests on him striding tall on the international stage and stoking the fires of patriotism. A leader who courted international condemnation by seizing the Crimea is not going to do a deal with Abe over the Northern Territories. After all, Russia believes that the islands are legitimate war booty as promised at the Yalta Conference in February 1945, when U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt was eager to get Joseph Stalin’s help in defeating Japan. Moreover, seizure of the islands represents payback for the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth that awarded Russian territory to Japan following victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.
The Japanese media made much of Putin’s repeated reference to the 1956 Soviet-Japanese joint declaration as a basis for talks, but when Abe emerged from his December meeting, he explained that Putin’s interpretation of that statement is very different to Japan’s understanding. Specifically, the declaration refers to the “transfer” of two of the four disputed islands following the conclusion of a peace treaty, but Putin doesn’t believe that refers to sovereignty. Japan has always interpreted this as meaning a transfer of sovereignty. Putin’s position on “transfer” smacks of duplicity and seems a pointed rejection of Abe’s overtures.
Aside from not conceding any territory as a matter of national pride, and the fact that 17,000 Russian citizens live in the disputed territory, Putin might be concerned that if there is a transfer of sovereignty, the U.S. military forces could establish a presence on the islands that would undermine Russian security. This is a strategically sensitive area for Russian submarines and the recent installation of missile batteries on two of the disputed islands conveys a strong message about Russian concerns and intentions. However, given that the islands are so close to Hokkaido, it is not clear that the transfer of sovereignty over the islands in question would confer any significant military advantage or disadvantage.
The bottom line is, Tokyo and Moscow are at an impasse that Abe still has hopes of overcoming through economic diplomacy. But this is also problematic as Russia plans to tax any Japanese firms operating on the disputed islands. Doing so would require Tokyo’s tacit recognition of Moscow’s sovereignty, something it is unwilling to do.
There is another issue: the link between how the Northern Territories are handled and Japan’s other island disputes with South Korea (over Takeshima/Dokdo), and China and Taiwan (over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands).
Moscow contends there is no dispute and simply dismisses Japan’s claims as baseless. This is analogous to what Japan contends regarding the Senkakus and what Seoul maintains regarding Takeshima; in each case the power that exercises administrative control over the disputed territory refuses to recognize any other claims or, indeed, even acknowledge there is a dispute.
Using the islands as leverage to attract Japanese investment is a ploy, not a concession to Japanese claims. Putin has lead Abe on and is playing him, using him to boost Russian prestige while flipping off the G-7. Because nothing Tokyo can offer as inducement is essential, Abe has no cards to play and thus has to rely on Putin’s goodwill.
Good luck with that.
Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.
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