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Abe woos Putin with strategic intent in mind

Japan's proposals on Northern Territories connected to balance of power in Northeast Asia

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Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin head for a media briefing following their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 27.   © Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clearly has his heart set on closer relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Japanese leader's visit to Moscow on April 27 marked his 17th meeting with Putin, a remarkable total even in this era of incessant summitry. Abe is also not shy about demonstrating his personal enthusiasm for the relationship. In public, Abe makes a point of calling Putin by his first name. Putin is also the only foreign leader to have been hosted by Abe in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi.

More noteworthy, Abe has a tendency to describe the relationship with Putin in poetic terms. In a September 2016 speech in Vladivostok, Abe provoked jests about a "bromance" when he told Putin: "We could walk into the virgin forest of the taiga in the light of the sun's rays and push through the foliage." Similarly, on April 27, he claimed: "On the basis of mutual respect, mutual benefit and mutual trust, Vladimir and I want to walk hand-in-hand on the path to concluding a peace treaty," in reference to one that would formally end World War II between the two countries.

Japan's G-7 partners struggle to understand what Abe sees in the Russian strongman. In February 2016, then U.S. President Barack Obama sought to dissuade Abe from visiting Russia. Less subtly, U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson recently described the Putin regime as being "in a league of supervillains." Undeterred, Abe is standing by his policy and has insisted that Putin is "a man who keeps his promises." Even after the international condemnation of Russia that followed the chemical weapons attack by its Syrian ally on April 4, Abe ignored calls for him to cancel his Moscow trip.

And yet, for all Abe's fidelity, his eagerness for closer ties does not appear fully reciprocated. In December, Putin turned up three hours late for their meeting at a hot springs resort in Yamaguchi and declined the invitation to join the Japanese leader in the bath. He also rejected the Japanese leader's attempt to give him another puppy to join the one he received from a Japanese provincial governor in 2012, making Abe's efforts seem rather obsessive.

More important, Putin has not been forthcoming on the issue of greatest importance to his Japanese counterpart. On many occasions, Abe has passionately pledged to resolve the status of the disputed Northern Territories before the end of his time in office. These four islands were seized from Japan at the end of World War II and continue to be administered by Russia as the Southern Kurils. Despite Abe's insistent courtship of Putin, as well as the offer of an eight-point economic cooperation plan, little real progress has been made toward resolving this territorial dispute that would lead to the conclusion of the peace treaty.

The headline achievement of Putin's visit to Yamaguchi in December was an agreement to discuss joint economic development of the four islands. The first substantive talks then followed in Tokyo on March 18. The proposed joint economic development was also the focus of the Putin-Abe meeting in Moscow on April 27. It was agreed that a Japanese study group would visit the islands in May to investigate the potential of suggested joint economic projects. The Russian leadership also promised to arrange a charter flight so that former Japanese residents could visit ancestral graves on the islands. Currently, such visits are only allowed by boat.

This may seem like progress, yet there is no guarantee that joint economic development will become a reality. This is because the two sides remain deeply divided over legal issues. The problem is that Japan refuses any arrangement that acknowledges Russian sovereignty. It therefore calls for the establishment of a special legal framework for the islands under which the joint economic activities could be conducted. Russia, however, insists that the projects must be carried out in accordance with Russian law. This is a major obstacle and nothing that has been agreed so far indicates that the sides are close to overcoming it. In addition, the agreement to organize a charter flight for former residents is a small humanitarian gesture and it remains to be seen whether they will become a regular occurrence.

As such, Abe has so far received next to nothing for his efforts. Since the Japanese leader cannot be dismissed as some love-struck naif, what then explains his relentless efforts to woo the Russian leader?

Strategic goals

First, Abe is an optimist when it comes to the territorial dispute. He fully understands that the return of the four islands is impossible, yet he believes that a deal involving shared sovereignty remains a possibility. Abe believes that ultimately Russia will compromise since it needs Japanese assistance to modernize its economy. Buttering up Putin is therefore important since he is the only Russian leader powerful enough to face down domestic opposition to concessions on the islands issue. The joint economic activities are viewed by Abe as a step toward a condominium arrangement for the disputed territory. The islands have been entirely Russified since being seized by the Soviet Union more than 70 years ago and there are few connections with modern Japan. The joint economic activities and increased visits from former residents and their families are therefore intended as a way of slowly reestablishing a Japanese presence on the islands. Recognizing this, one Russian observer describes the Japanese proposals as a "Trojan horse". This strategy, which has few immediate payoffs but significant long-term potential, is only possible for a leader such as Abe who faces little domestic opposition and foresees staying in power for years.

Second, Abe is motivated by fundamental security considerations. Faced with security threats from North Korea and China as well as a perennial fear of U.S. abandonment, Japan is prioritizing closer relations with other regional powers. This primarily involves security ties with India, Australia, and South Korea. But this also entails seeking to neutralize the danger of China and Russia forging a close political and military relationship that would be hostile to Japan. This has become a pressing concern since 2014 when Russia's isolation from the West following the Ukraine crisis has forced Moscow to turn to China. In Abe's calculations, avoiding the strategic nightmare of a Sino-Russian united front against Japan is likely to justify any number of fruitless meetings and any amount of flattery toward the Russian leader.

The latest summit in Moscow ended with Abe expressing enthusiasm that he will see Putin again at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg in July, while he also confirmed his promise to travel to Vladivostok in September. These next two meetings with Putin are equally unlikely to result in a major breakthrough on the territorial issue, leading to more doubts about Abe's seemingly odd fixation with the Russian leader. Nonetheless, guided by a long-term plan regarding the islands and a strategic rationale, Abe's apparently one-sided bromance with Putin seems set to continue.

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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