November 16, 2016 2:18 pm JST
James D.J. Brown

Japan's Abe eyes 'Trump factor' in Russia policy

In the wake of the shock result of the U.S. presidential election, much has been written about the negative implications for Japan of a Trump presidency. These concerns arise from the U.S. president-elect's campaign comments suggesting that Japan develop its own nuclear deterrent and demanding that Tokyo pay more for the upkeep of U.S. bases in the country. These remarks, in combination with his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement, have raised questions about Trump's commitment to Washington's close ties with Japan.

The Japanese leadership, which was clearly banking on a Hillary Clinton presidency, has moved quickly to try to assuage doubts about the U.S.-Japan alliance, a relationship that has served as a pillar of regional stability -- and one of the world's most important international alliances -- since the end of World War II. In particular, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will travel to New York to meet with Trump on Nov. 17. This is an unusual step, as Japanese leaders do not usually meet with U.S. presidents-elect before their inauguration. Abe has also sent his special adviser, Katsuyuki Kawai, to Washington this week -- belatedly to develop contacts with the Trump camp.

While Trump's surprise victory may generally have caused alarm within the Japanese government, there is at least one area where it will clearly make things easier: On Abe's controversial Russia policy.

Since the beginning of this year, Abe has been engaged in a determined effort to improve relations with Russia. Framed as his "new approach," the aim is to use the offer of Japanese economic assistance to induce Russian concessions on the countries' decades-old territorial dispute over the Northern Territories (four islands known as the Southern Kurils in Russia). To this end, Abe traveled to Russia to meet President Vladimir Putin in both May and September, and the two leaders will meet again at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru, just two days after Abe's meeting with Trump. This diplomatic activity is building toward the Russian leader's visit to Japan on Dec. 15. At this long-planned summit, which will include a meeting in Abe's home prefecture of Yamaguchi, the Japanese side hopes to achieve tangible progress on the territorial issue.

Concerns were raised this week, just ahead of Abe's meeting with Trump, that these plans could be disrupted by the sudden arrest on corruption charges of Aleksei Ulyukaev, Russia's minister of economic development, who had been closely involved in economic discussions with Japan. Both sides have moved quickly, however, to indicate that Ulyukaev's removal will have no impact on bilateral relations.  

The timing of Abe's courtship of Putin is sensitive, as it comes at a time when Russia remains under G-7 sanctions for its involvement in the crisis in Ukraine. There have also been growing calls in the West for additional sanctions due to Russia's military involvement in the Syrian civil war. This has placed Japan in an awkward position since, in pursuit of closer economic ties with Russia, it has inevitably had to deal with prominent individuals and companies that are included on the U.S. and EU sanctions lists. One example is the proposed deal for the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, a government-backed institution, to lend 4 billion yen to Sberbank, a Russian bank subject to Western sanctions. The loan would not directly violate sanctions, but dealing with this institution risks giving the impression that Japan is working against Western policy.

Russia factor in US politics

The Obama administration has generally taken a reasonably sympathetic attitude toward Abe's Russia policy. It has urged caution but appears to have accepted Tokyo's argument that it needs to pursue a perceived opportunity to resolve the territorial dispute. An earlier concern among the Japanese political and business elite, however, was that a Clinton administration could more actively oppose Japan's growing ties with Russia. When Hillary Clinton met Abe in New York in September, the presidential candidate expressed acceptance of the Japanese leader's Russia policy. Despite this, since Clinton is well known as a Russia hawk, and there was a high probability that, had she become president, there would have been a further deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations. Tokyo would likely have come under intense pressure to abandon its conciliatory policy.

By contrast, Trump can be expected to adopt a much less confrontational stance toward Russia. He has never expressed criticism of Putin, and some of his comments have appeared to suggest willingness to accept the annexation of Crimea. In addition, his "America first" policy is welcomed in Russia, where there is intense opposition to U.S. interference in the affairs of other countries.

The likelihood, therefore, is that under a Trump presidency, there will be reduced opposition in Washington to Abe's "new approach." Instead, when discussing relations with Russia, the U.S. and Japanese leaders are likely to agree that pragmatic engagement is a better strategy than forthright confrontation. This is not to say that either U.S. or Japanese sanctions on Russia will quickly be dropped. It will mean, however, that sanctions are less likely to be extended and that the U.S. will take a more benign attitude toward economic involvement with Russia that does not explicitly violate the sanctions.

In this context, Abe will be able to proceed with his preparations for Putin's mid-December visit with reduced concerns about the U.S. response. In addition to removing obstacles to closer Japan-Russia relations, a Trump presidency also strengthens the logic of such a strategy by Japan.

Although explanations of Abe's "new approach" always emphasize the territorial issue, this policy is also driven by Japan's long-term security concerns. Japanese strategists perceive the increasingly close relationship between China and Russia to be a potential threat. This is because stable relations across the vast China-Russia land border and Russian support for China in international institutions have had an emboldening effect on Beijing's foreign policy. As such, it is logical for Tokyo to attempt to draw Russia away from China.

This strategy becomes all the more pressing in the context of a Trump presidency, since any reduction in Japanese confidence in the U.S. security guarantee makes it all the more important for Japan to explore alternative means of upholding its security against a perceived China threat - including improving relations with Russia. Reflecting this line of thinking, one Russian news portal on Nov. 11 ran the headline, "Trump's threats are pushing Japan toward reconciliation with Russia."

In short, an isolationist turn in U.S. foreign policy under a Trump presidency is likely to further press Japan toward Russia. At the same time, Trump's more accommodating attitude toward Moscow will help remove obstacles to Abe's pursuit of this policy. That said, the forthcoming Trump presidency does nothing to ease Abe's monumental task of persuading Putin of the merits of returning the disputed territory to Japan.

James D.J. Brown is an associate professor of political science at Temple University, Japan Campus, and author of "Japan, Russia and their Territorial Dispute" (Routledge 2016).

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