Abe’s Russia plan: Will it work?

Courtesy: G20 Summit 2015

In a widely publicised meeting at Sochi on May 6, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met Russian President Vladimir Putin. It was a very important meeting where Abe showed tenacious resolve to bring about a new turnaround in the bilateral relations which have hit a road block since the Ukraine crisis in 2014. While Putin has not visited Japan even once, it was Abe’s fourth visit to Russia, showing his strong resolve to mend the ties.

Ever since Abe returned to power in December 2012, he has taken a vow that he will make all possible efforts to realise two of his most important political objectives. The first one is about amending Article 9 of the Constitution. He has fulfilled this mission partially. Though a formal Constitutional amendment is still a distant goal, Abe has succeeded in his efforts to reinterpret the Constitution to ensure Japan’s role, though limited, in collective self-defence. His second vow relates to the resolution of the territorial question with Russia which has been pending for about 60 years now.  Abe believes that since he and Putin enjoy overwhelming political strength in their respective countries, they should exert their influence and guide their countries in the direction of finding a solution to the territorial tangle instead of leaving the issue to the next generation to solve. Abe knows that Putin is sitting in the driver’s seat as far as the territorial issue is concerned. If the Ukraine crisis is going to create a prolonged period of diplomatic lull, it will toughen Moscow’s position and dampen its willingness to even discuss the issue. Abe believes he should therefore keep the territorial issue alive by continuing to interact with Putin and even expand Japan’s stakes in Russia by means of cooperation in trade and investment.

That Abe was keen to improve ties with the Putin administration even before the Ukraine crisis was more than amplified during his visit to Moscow in April 2013, when relations between the two received a substantial impetus. They decided to hold annual summit meeting between the two top leaders. They further decided to set up a new consultative mechanism at the level of their respective foreign and defence ministers in the 2+2 format. Russia is the third country to have this arrangement with Japan, the other two being the US and Australia. The first ministerial meeting was also held in Japan in November 2013. In addition, unlike other G-7 member countries, Abe attended the winter Olympics game held in Sochi in February 2014.

The crisis in Ukraine leading upto the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 indeed created a dilemma for Japanese diplomacy, and forced Abe to steer a cautiously independent course that would safeguard Japan’s deeply-held national interests without at the same time arousing the resentment of the G-7 member states including the US. Though Japan joined other G-7 countries in enforcing sanctions against Russia, few could have missed the underlying unhappiness of Japan about its own action.

Abe quickly acted to control the damage done by the Ukraine crisis and sent foreign minister Kishida to Moscow in September 2015 in an attempt to re-engage Russia and restore the bilateral relations to the pre-crisis level. Putin responded well by welcoming Kishida’s visit and expressed his hope that economic cooperation between the two countries would be developed further. Two more summit meetings between Putin and Abe, held on the sidelines of the UNGA sessions and the G-20 meeting in Turkey, set the stage for Abe’s “informal” visit to Russia again.

The Abe-Putin meeting at Sochi seems to have given a new vigour and direction to the bilateral relations. At the meeting, Abe suggested that a “new approach” would be necessary to negotiate on the twin issues of peace treaty and the Northern Territories. Abe also presented an economic cooperation programme involving eight sectors, including energy development, economic development measures for the Russian Far East region and the raising of the living standards of the Russian people. Keen to settle the territorial issue during his tenure, Abe wants Putin to make his official visit to Japan this year so that the suspended negotiations could be revived and placed on a formal track.

From the Russian viewpoint, its sagging economy due to steep fall in oil prices and the strain of sanctions makes Putin welcome expanded trade and investment relations with Japan. Analysts believe that at a time when Russia is isolated from the G-7 countries, maintaining cooperative relations with Japan is not only good diplomacy, but it could also reduce Russia’s present dependence on China.

In the meantime, Abe has agreed to have another meeting with Putin at Vladivostok in September this year. In recent months, some of the prominent leaders of the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party like Masahiko Komura (vice-President of the LDP) and Tomomi Inada (Policy Research Council Chief) have visited Russia. The deepening of such political and economic cooperation could, Abe hopes, lead to a situation where both countries would find reconciliation a distinct possibility.

This commentary originally appeared in Indian Defence Review.

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K. V. Kesavan