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Shinzo Abe's Russia policy risks embarrassment for Japan

He must stop giving in to Vladimir Putin, who delights in spurning him

| Japan

Since 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "new approach" to Russia has offered generous political and economic engagement in the hope of achieving a legacy-defining resolution to the countries' territorial dispute. This is over the Russian-held Southern Kuril Islands, which are claimed by Japanese as its Northern Territories.

Yet as demonstrated again at their meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, on September 5, Abe's efforts have remained unreciprocated. Despite the difficulty of accepting defeat, Abe must change course before Japan suffers humiliation.

In his desperation to achieve a territorial settlement and related peace treaty, Abe has set aside the diplomatic principle of step-by-step reciprocity. Instead of holding back sweeteners until the Russian side begins to compromise, Abe's strategy has been to give Moscow what it wants up front. His hope was that, by creating a positive bilateral relationship, momentum would be generated toward a territorial breakthrough.

This lack of reciprocity is visible in Abe and Putin's personal relations. Since both leaders returned to the top office in 2012, Abe has visited Russia 11 times, whereas Putin has been to Japan just twice. What is more, when Putin was invited to Abe's hometown in Yamaguchi in December 2016, he turned up three hours late.

Politically too, the Abe's administration has been remarkably accommodating. It was careful to introduce only token sanctions after the annexation of Crimea and has played host to several Russian officials blacklisted by the U.S. and E.U.

When it comes to economics, in May 2016 Abe announced an eight-point cooperation plan with Russia and appointed a minister to oversee its implementation. Furthermore, the government has used public money to encourage investment in Russian projects.

Finally, Abe has compromised on the territorial issue itself, signaling that Japan will settle for the transfer of just two of the four islands, which only account for 7% of the disputed landmass. Additionally, to avoid offending Russia, the Abe cabinet is under instructions to no longer describe the islands as "inherent" Japanese territory.

In November 2018, there was a glimmer of hope when the Russian side agreed to advance talks on the basis of the 1956 Joint Declaration. This was significant because that agreement promises that Moscow will transfer the two smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai after the conclusion of a peace treaty.

However, any expectations that a territorial resolution was in prospect were dashed when Moscow added additional demands, including that Japan recognize Russia's legal right to all four islands as a result of World War II. The Abe government was therefore forced to abandon hopes that a framework deal could be signed when Putin visited Japan for the G-20 in June 2019.

Things were made worse over the summer by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's visit to the largest of the disputed islands in August. Russian aircraft also violated Japanese-claimed airspace in both June and July.

Given this context, expectations were low for Abe's meeting with Putin at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 5. Despite this, the outcome was much worse than anticipated.

Not only was there no progress on the territorial issue, but Putin chose to use the event to preside -- via videolink -- over the opening ceremony of a vast new fish processing plant on disputed Shikotan.

To take this step while the Japanese leader was in Russia was a diplomatic insult. It was also a personal slap in the face for Abe, who has shown strong support for the Eastern Economic Forum by attending each year since 2016.

Additionally, the move made a mockery of Putin's earlier agreement to base talks on the 1956 Joint Declaration.

By treating the leader of the world's third-largest economy with such contempt, Putin demonstrates his international power. It is also a signal to Beijing that China, and not Japan, is Russia's priority partner in East Asia.

Abe must now realize that his Russia policy has failed. Above all, by making Japan's cooperation unconditional, he has given Putin no incentive to compromise.

Despite this, Abe will be reluctant to accept defeat on a foreign policy issue with which he is so personally associated. The temptation will be to plod on with the same policy and to perpetuate the fiction that a breakthrough is just around the corner.

This would be to compound the error. Abe is likely to be in power for another two years and should use this time to pursue a revised Russia policy. He is not wrong to seek a compromise solution to the territorial dispute or to pursue cooperation with Russia on certain issues. This must, however, be done on the basis of reciprocity.

Specifically, Abe should continue to seek a two-island solution to the territorial dispute since this is the most that Japan can possibly expect to receive. However, rather than offering up-front inducements, political and economic cooperation should be held back as rewards for Russian concessions.

In addition, Japan must demonstrate that it will stand firmly with democratic partners in condemnation of Russian misdeeds, whether in the skies above Ukraine, the hacking of U.S. servers or the streets of Salisbury.

Putin is a leader who respects power above all else. If Abe wants to forge a deal with Russia, he must put an end to Japan's weak-kneed diplomacy and adopt a tougher stance. The alternative is the continued abasement of Japan before its northern neighbor.

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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