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Abe's Russia trip highlights foreign policy failings

Japan's prime minister struggles for success abroad amid mounting difficulties at home

| Japan

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has returned largely empty-handed from a four-day visit to St. Petersburg and Moscow, including a disappointing summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The meager results of the trip that ended on May 27 are just the most recent setback in a Russia policy that has consistently promised much but delivered little. Abe's failure fits a growing pattern of diplomatic setbacks for a Japanese leader for whom foreign policy -- unusually -- was supposed to be a strength.

The latest diplomatic debacle will only worsen Abe's plunging popularity ratings, which have been hit by allegations of political cronyism in two school scandals and the resignation of a top bureaucrat following sexual harassment claims. The prime minister's hopes of crowning his long tenure by reforming Japan's pacifist constitution are also fading.

Abe's latest Russia trip was intended as the culmination of his so-called "new approach," a 2016 initiative that seeks to offer economic incentives to secure progress toward resolving the two countries' longstanding territorial dispute over the Southern Kuril islands (Northern Territories in Japanese).

The timing of the visit was also thought propitious since it followed shortly after Putin's re-election as Russian president in March. Since this is supposedly Putin's final term, it was felt in the Abe administration that he might now be more willing to consider unpopular territorial concessions.

Instead, while Abe put a brave face on it, the summit failed to achieve anything of lasting significance. Crucially, the Japanese leader was unable to extract an agreement on a legal framework to conduct joint economic activities on the disputed islands.

These projects have been the main focus of Abe's Russia policy since they offer the prospect of a Japanese presence returning to the islands for the first time since the end of the Second World War. They cannot proceed, however, unless Moscow agrees to create a special legal framework that is distinct from Russian law. Otherwise, Japanese participation would be tantamount to recognizing Russian sovereignty.

Abe felt that he had secured agreement in principle on this point when Putin visited Japan in December 2016. The May summit, however, shows that the sides are as far apart as ever. Two years of effort have failed to achieve any real progress.

Abe has always sought to present himself as an international statesman in whom the Japanese can place their confidence at a time of global insecurity. Yet, at just the time when he would most benefit from a foreign policy success to distract from domestic troubles, Abe's touch appears to be deserting him.

With regard to recent diplomatic activity over the Korean Peninsula, Abe has been a peripheral figure. His government was the most vocal supporter of the U.S.'s "maximum pressure" policy and Abe himself had frequently spoken against holding immediate talks. He was shown to be totally out of the loop when U.S. President Donald Trump announced in March that he intended to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

As well as undermining his claims to close ties with Trump, Abe's lack of involvement in this process raises concerns that Japan's national interests will not be upheld. Above all, there is the danger that Trump will cut a deal with Kim that addresses U.S. worries about intercontinental ballistic missiles but leaves Japan vulnerable to North Korea's arsenal of shorter-range weapons.

Scrambling for influence, Abe has secured Trump's agreement to meet in Washington on June 7 ahead of the U.S.-North Korea summit provisionally planned for June 12.

As far as that historic meeting is concerned, Tokyo intends to send a senior diplomat to gather information about what is discussed, which only serves to reinforce the impression of Japan hovering outside the diplomatic tent and eagerly seeking admission.

Abe has had little more success in persuading the international community to share his commitment to discovering the fate of the 12 Japanese citizens that Tokyo says were abducted by North Korea during the 1970s and 1980s and whose fate remains unaccounted for. Indeed, some partners complain in private that the issue is a distraction from the priority of avoiding nuclear confrontation. Pyongyang has also claimed that the abduction problem is already settled and has criticized Japan for using the issue "to stem the trend of peace on the Korean Peninsula."

Perhaps most damaging of all, however, has been Abe's utter failure to exert influence over Trump. Despite initially presenting himself as the leader who had gained Trump's ear, Abe was unable to persuade Trump to remain within the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Abe was also humiliated by the Trump administration's refusal to exempt Japan from tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, despite exemptions being granted to other U.S. allies. Trump's decision to launch a national security investigation into automotive imports could also hit Japan particularly hard.

A more sympathetic reading of Abe's record might conclude that no Japanese prime minister could have done better. Both the territorial dispute with Russia and the abduction issue are intractable, multi-decade problems. Trump is also an erratic president and no world leader has consistently managed to bend him to their will.

Yet, Abe's poor foreign policy record deserves to be compared with the grandiose promises he made. These began in February 2013 with his claim that "Japan is back" and "is not, and will never be, a Tier-two country." He has also frequently promised to settle the territorial issue with Russia and resolve the abduction issue before the end of his time in office. Now that he has been in power for more than five years (as well as an earlier short spell in 2006-2007), these pledges are sounding increasingly hollow.

Of course, all politicians oversell their policies, but Abe has been more guilty than most. Domestically, his star is fading, dimmed not only by the cronyism scandals, but also by his failure to achieve meaningful results in growth-boosting economic reforms or regional revitalization. Any lingering hope that the prime minister might redeem himself with his foreign policy is fading fast. As the Russia trip shows, he is increasingly being found out as a leader who is better at promising than delivering.

James D.J. Brown is an associate professor in political science at Temple University in Tokyo and a specialist on Russo-Japanese relations.


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