Japan tests West’s boycott of Russia

M.K. Bhadrakumar June 26, 2015 9:12 AM (UTC+8)
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The Russian diplomacy got a big boost on Wednesday when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a phone call to President Vladimir Putin. Abe took the initiative a day after Tokyo had sent out a cryptic signal that Russia’s participation in next year’s G7 summit (May 26-27), which Japan is hosting, “is undecided yet.”

Abe has strong reasons to pick up the threads of Japan’s bilateral ties with Russia
Abe has strong reasons to pick up the threads of Japan’s bilateral ties with Russia which suffered after Tokyo closed ranks with the West

The Kremlin readout said the two leaders “expressed their mutual desire to develop political, economic, humanitarian, and security cooperation”. They resolved to “prepare thoroughly” for a visit by Putin to Japan.

Abe has strong reasons to pick up the threads of Japan’s bilateral ties with Russia, which suffered through the past year after Tokyo closed ranks with the West and imposed sanctions against Russia. The fact of the matter is that as the Asia-Pacific is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Japan is the odd man out, still without a peace treaty with Russia.

Tokyo had pinned hopes on Putin’s leadership to resolve the dispute over the Kurile Islands, which are under Russian occupation and is a hugely emotive issue for the Japanese public. Japan has held out the promise that the resolution of the island dispute could unlock Japanese investments for Russia’s Far East and Siberia, which Moscow has been eagerly seeking.

Meanwhile, what makes Tokyo particularly uneasy is the acceleration of the Sino-Russian entente in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing is closer than ever in securing Moscow’s support for its “core interests” in the Asia-Pacific. The two countries have pledged to be supportive of each other’s core interests and to coordinate their foreign policies.

Abe estimates that the Russian DNA may prefer the country to play the role of a “balancer” in the Asia-Pacific between China and the US, a role that Moscow pundits have expounded in the past as ideally suiting their country’s interests and its European identity – that is, until Ukraine erupted and the West turned on Russia.

Abe is making a determined pitch to nudge Russia back to the middle ground even as the countdown begins for yet another visit by Putin to China (to attend the victory celebrations, including a grand parade that Beijing is planning for September), which would in all probability hoist the Sino-Russian entente to newer heights.

Abe tried hard at the G7 meeting last month in Germany to impress upon his western colleagues that it is the South China Sea that should engage priority attention – and not Russia and Ukraine. However, the US and the European members of the G7 forum made some perfunctory noises about China’s land reclamation work in the South China Sea (without naming China, of course), but failed to meet Abe’s expectation to unite the G7 to apply pressure on China.

Abe’s anxieties over the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank were plainly ignored by Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Canada, which have joined the planned China-led bank.

Interestingly, however, Abe also tried at the G7 summit to leave room for dialogue with Russia. Thus, the phone call to Putin on Tuesday did have a backdrop. Moscow might even have expected Abe’s phone call.

Indeed, it is only logical if Tokyo began wondering why it should stick out its neck and continue to let the ties with Russia drift on account of the conflict in Ukraine, whereas the West is in no mood to wade into the South China Sea or show any desire to confront China.

Abe’s phone call to Putin does not hint at any imminent rethink in the West regarding sanctions against Russia. But then, Japan’s patience is running out. It has specific issues to address in its relations with Russia.

The Sino-Russian entente does not worry the US. But the bottom line for Tokyo is that the balance of forces involving Russia is incrementally shifting in China’s favor and it hurts Japanese interests.

Suffice it to say, Abe understands that it is in Japan’s interests to offer a countervailing relationship that restores the balance in Russia’s Asia-Pacific policies.

From the Russian viewpoint, it all depends on what Japan has to offer. An upgrade of ties with Japan at this point means, in principle, an erosion of the US’ containment strategy against Russia. But on the other hand, Japan is welcoming the deployment of the US anti-missile system on its territories, which aim at Russia (as much as China).

To be sure, Russia’s hands get strengthened vis-à-vis China if Japan offers a substantial relationship. Russia needs all the technology and capital that Japan can commit in its economy.  But the dispute over the islands cannot easily lend to a solution.

In April, Russia conducted military anti-landing drills in the island chain as part of coastal defence from possible sea or air attacks. As recently as a fortnight ago, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow plans to accelerate building work on civilian and military infrastructure on the islands. Clearly, Russia has no illusions about the centrality of Japan’s military alliance with the US in Tokyo’s policies.

Nonetheless, Abe is pressing hard, given the belief in Tokyo that if any Russian leader can draw the curtain down on the island dispute and purposively launch the Russian-Japanese strategic partnership, it is only Putin who can.

The Japanese reports mentioned that Abe is deputing the National Security Council chief Shotaro Yachi to visit Moscow in early July. Japan is eager to send Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to Russia this fall. These visits may lay the groundwork for a Putin visit to Japan.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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