Japan proceeds cautiously with Russia

Shinzo Abe is conducting a curious diplomatic dance with Vladimir Putin. His timing may appear hard to understand, as events in Ukraine and Syria increase the distance between the Russian government and Japan’s allies in the EU and the US. The Japanese prime minister is, however, responding to a compelling long-term global logic. The challenge is to balance the strategic reasoning against acute short-term risks.

A trip to Japan for Mr Putin is planned for next month, his first visit as president in 11 years. Both leaders have invested in achieving a significant result. Mr Abe has publicly committed to breaking the deadlock in a territorial dispute over four islands, known in Russia as the Kuriles and in Japan as the Northern Territories. They were annexed by Russia at the end of the second world war. The dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from signing a peace treaty to put an official end to that conflict.

The islands are an important, if symbolic, prize for Mr Abe. In 1972, Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka normalised Japan’s relations with China, a coup regarded as one of the most significant postwar diplomatic achievements. Mr Abe hopes that greater influence with Russia will deter the forging of a deeper Chinese-Russian alliance.

Drawing closer to Russia is also part of Japan’s China strategy. In the East China Sea, conflict over the Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China), and China’s efforts to develop offshore gasfields, have heightened tensions between Japan and China. Mr Abe hopes to create space between China and Russia by drawing Russia closer.

To lay the groundwork, Japan is poised to expand its economic ties to Russia. Mr Abe sent his Hiroshige Seko, trade minister, to Moscow last week to discuss economic co-operation. Mr Putin likes this approach and he desperately needs foreign investment to push forward long-delayed energy development projects, particularly in Siberia. He has signalled willingness to negotiate over the disputed islands, sparking hope in Japan.

The world community is focused on maintaining a stable balance of power in the face of growing Chinese assertiveness. Japan’s approach could be useful in that regard: it decreases the chances that Russia is pushed permanently into China’s orbit, becoming the “junior partner” in an authoritarian bloc. Avoiding this outcome, however, will take decades.

In the medium term, Japan’s approach to Mr Putin threatens to weaken G7 co-ordination, and undermine sanctions against Moscow.

There are risks to Japan’s national interest, too. Many experts believe Japan can only hope to get two tiny islands back. Japan and the Soviet Union signed a joint declaration in 1956 stipulating the handover of Shikotan and Habomai, the two smallest islands, if and when a peace treaty is signed. The two make up 7 per cent of the islands’ land mass, and have little economic or security value. For this small gain, Japan cannot risk alienating the US or the EU.

Nor should Japan expect Russia to provide much meaningful support in its rivalry with China, even after a peace treaty is signed. Russia is deeply wary of China, but its hope for stronger economic ties, particularly in the form of pipelines to send natural gas eastward — is stronger still.

It is understandable that Japan wants to put a longstanding dispute behind it while seeking ways to counterbalance China’s growing regional strength. But doing so at the cost of splitting the G7 would be a serious mistake.

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