Illusory Progress
Abe's Moscow trip is unlikely to achieve its intended objective
By Yu Lintao  ·  2016-05-13  ·   Source: | NO. 20 MAY 19, 2016


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe meet at Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, Russia, on May 6 (CFP) 

Despite Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hailing a potential breakthrough in a decades-long territorial dispute with Russia after talks with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on May 6, work remains to be done before both sides can reach a detente. A prevailing view among some observers is that Japan's prime minister has misjudged both the extent of Japan's economic leverage and Moscow's firm stance on territorial issues and that the territorial dispute between the two sides will undoubtedly continue to cast a shadow over their rapprochement.

Japan and Russia's joint claim to four Pacific islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, has long prevented the two sides from inking a peace treaty after World War II. Under the 1945 Yalta accord, Russia took control of the islands, which Japan disputes.

In the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the two leaders' talks lasted over three hours, which included a 35-minute face-to-face private discussion. In the talks, the two promised to boost dialogue in all areas--political, economic, trade and investment--and to continue negotiation over the territorial dispute. Abe thus believed Japan's economic leverage would soften Moscow's attitude toward the territorial issue, as Russia is currently suffering a severe economic contraction due to falling oil prices, Western sanctions and the depreciation of the ruble.

According to Kyodo News, Abe laid out an eight-point plan outlining how Tokyo and Moscow could cooperate in revitalizing the Russian Far East, developing energy resources and building state-of-the-art hospitals, among other items.

Although Japan's "generous" offer of economic cooperation may tempt Russia, such arrangements apparently were not enough to lure Moscow into making concessions on the territorial dispute.

In fact, Moscow had already set the tone for any discussion of the issue prior to Abe's visit. During Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's trip to Tokyo in April, the top Russian diplomat said Russia wants to "move forward" but is not prepared to budge on the "result of World War II." And, two days before Abe's arrival in Sochi, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow expected "no immediate and serious progress" at the Putin-Abe meeting on the "extremely sensitive" territorial issue. In recent months, moreover, Russia has expanded its military presence in the region by building new compounds for its troops stationed on two of the disputed islands.

Though the Japanese foreign ministry press secretary Yasuhisa Kawamura told media after the Abe-Putin talks that the prime minister "could feel a breakthrough in the currently stagnated negotiation." The Kremlin, however, only said that "the issue was discussed in a very constructive way" and added no further detail.

Previous events have already shown how intractable Moscow is when it comes to making territorial concessions. Moscow's tough stance on the Crimean region has won Putin high domestic approval ratings of over 80 percent. The hardline Russian president seems unlikely to yield on territorial issues, all the more so since a presidential election is less than two years away.

Notwithstanding the tough attitude that they have adopted in this dispute, Moscow has demonstrated its skill at employing specious rhetoric by leaving Tokyo with the feeling of potential progress.

Given Russia's current economic woes and international isolation resulting from the Ukrainian crisis, Moscow's tactic is not difficult to understand. As its weakest link, Japan has become the focus of efforts by Moscow to break the Group of Seven's alleged containment strategy. Moscow has already taken the opportunity to announce that the Putin-Abe meeting has indicated the failure of Washington's policy of isolation. And, with Abe's promise of economic cooperation, Moscow has reaped plenty of political and economic capital from Abe's visit.

For his part, Abe is eager to achieve a breakthrough in the territorial dispute with Russia in order to garner more domestic support. Whereas economic cooperation between Russia and Japan is certainly mutually beneficial, Abe's impression of progress on the territorial issue is purely imaginary. The Japanese prime minister's so-called new approach for attempting to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia--private talks between himself and Putin--came under fire from sections of the Japanese media who voiced concern about its lack of transparency.

Despite the warmer words from both sides at recent talks, no official documents were signed during Abe's visit, and the potential lifting of sanctions imposed by Tokyo on Russia, another topic dear to the Kremlin's heart, was not mentioned during Abe's trip either. Furthermore, without taking into account the lingering territorial dispute, a knot still exists in the relations between the two countries, as Tokyo's Russia policy is apparently subject to the influence of the United States.

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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