A Silver Lining in Abe’s Unrequited Bromance with Putin
The Jan. 22 Russia-Japan summit in Moscow once again began with lofty expectations only to end with utter disappointment for Tokyo. A historic rapprochement with Russia has been Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s signature foreign policy agenda, leading him to host 25 summits with Russian President Vladimir Putin since 2013 in hopes of simultaneously achieving both a territorial resolution over the four southern Kuril islands claimed by Tokyo and a peace treaty with Moscow to officially end World War II. Abe’s failure to gain traction on either objective calls into question the very premise of the Japanese leader’s so-called “new approach” to Russia. Meanwhile, the emerging need to include the American factor in the bilateral talks might provide him with an unexpected opportunity to secure a diplomatic breakthrough. A fundamental shift in Japan’s approach to Russia must involve the United States to salvage any remaining opportunity in the future to chart a new trajectory for bilateral relations on the basis of shifting macro geopolitical trends in Asia.
While Abe’s strategy for his “new approach” to Russia has been to achieve a historic detente by forging a close personal relationship with Putin, it has long passed its culminating point of perceived utility. His underlying premise of generating mutual bonhomie in expectation for Putin’s largesse in the form of a territorial concession was highly questionable to begin with. Although Abe himself has frequently emphasized his putative bromance with Putin whom he has repeatedly addressed as “Vladimir,” Russia’s leader is essentially a wartime president at war with the West and hardly interested in fraternal benevolence. Abe may succeed in ingratiating himself with U.S. President Donald J. Trump with golf clubs, but not with Putin – even with multi-billion dollar infrastructure deals.
Moreover, Russia in 2019 is fundamentally no longer what many in Japan and the West believed it was in early 2014 – an excommunicated pariah state in desperate need of a friend. In fact, after Russia’s expulsion from the G8, Abe espoused optimism for his potential role as a bridge between Russia and the West and even attempted to bring the country back to the club of advanced economies. Fast forward to 2019. Russia is now on an inexorable path to becoming an independent arbiter in the world’s great power politics wielding undeniable global influence from the Middle East to cyberspace. Against this backdrop, there exists an obvious imbalance in the power dynamics of the bilateral negotiations: Russia is reemerging as a global power with both administrative and military control over the four southern Kuril islands, while Japan is increasingly succumbing to a disadvantageous position due in part to the way it has tried to isolate its alliance commitment to the United States.
Indeed, the U.S.-Japan alliance has been a perennial thorn in Moscow’s side in its engagement with Tokyo and is increasingly becoming Putin’s primary concern in the Far East. It bears particular importance in the Kremlin’s strategic calculations for the Far East given its submarine-launched ballistic missile sanctuary in the Sea of Okhotsk that could potentially become vulnerable if Russia cedes any of the four adjacent islands to Japan. Moreover, the U.S.-Japan ballistic missile defense program is entering a new phase with Tokyo’s recent purchase of $1.2 billion Aegis Ashore batteries from its American ally. While the new land-based missile defense currently targets North Korea, Moscow has leveled vehement objections to Tokyo’s potential dual offensive-defensive use of missiles and the equipment’s interoperability with the U.S. forces. Apart from these technicalities, Aegis Ashore batteries could theoretically be deployed on some of the four Kuril islands, such as Iturup, under Japanese sovereignty. Such a possibility alone would further dissuade Moscow, which views Japan as increasingly linked to Washington’s perceived efforts to contain Russia with its global missile defense network. From the Kremlin’s perspective, Japan could potentially become just another frontline state similar to Poland in today’s blazing Russia-West geopolitical rivalry.
Abe’s “new approach” to Russia has failed to effectively address these emerging military realities that are increasingly generating perception gaps between the two countries. What’s worse, during his November 2018 summit with Putin, Abe inadvertently plunged himself into legal complications by attempting to assuage Moscow’s concerns by promising not to allow U.S. bases to be built on Habomai and Shikotan islands. The U.S.-Japan alliance treaty enshrines Washington’s rights to build U.S. bases anywhere under Japanese sovereignty, immediately invalidating the Japanese leader’s promise. Indeed, no less a figure than the Commander of the U.S. Forces in Japan Lt. Gen. Jerry P. Martinez himself confirmed this peculiar decision-making mechanism when he recently clarified Washington’s intention not to deploy troops on the four southern Kuril islands “[a]t this stage.”
Abe therefore ruined himself by unintentionally inviting into the bilateral talks the broader U.S. geopolitical rivalry with Russia over which the Japanese leader has no control. Moreover, his hasty promise created an opening for Moscow to exploit the internal contradictions inherent in the alliance, a tactic long employed by the Kremlin since the Cold War days. In short, the role of the U.S. military in Russia-Japan relations has become the priority issue for Putin while Abe suddenly finds himself helpless on the faultline of great power politics. Indeed, Russia’s growing militarization of the four southern Kuril islands in recent months hardly appears to target the Japanese Self-Defense Forces per se and only corroborates that the Kremlin is more concerned with balancing the United States in the Far East than it is Japan.
Abe’s lamentable position after the latest summit with Putin may well be the end of the road for postwar Japan’s indefatigable quest for a territorial breakthrough. In other words, despite his “new approach” to Russia, Abe has scarcely succeeded in updating Tokyo’s established foreign policy shibboleth due to his continued focus on the territorial question. Worse, he has invited insurmountable problems only to further compromise his negotiating position. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, the Japanese leader appears in urgent need of rectifying his engagement with his Russian counterpart. In fact, Abe’s continued rush for a territorial resolution has effectively blinded him from seeing the larger, shifting geopolitical dynamics surrounding Japan while exposing a much-coveted opening for Moscow to undermine the U.S.-Japan alliance that forms the basis for Tokyo’s national security strategy.
Despite his growing predicament, Abe may still ironically be able to find a silver lining precisely because the territorial issue is now at the mercy of the larger U.S.-Russia geopolitical rivalry. Indeed, from the September 1945 Soviet occupation of the four southern Kuril Islands to Washington’s 1956 intervention in the Soviet-Japanese peace talks and beyond, the lingering territorial dispute actually originates in and has revolved around the enduring U.S.-Russia geopolitical competition over which Japan has to this date had no control. After the 25th Putin-Abe summit, such a fundamental geopolitical reality is again increasingly evident.
Against this backdrop, Abe finds himself with a historic opportunity to cut the Kurilian knot by harkening back to Putin’s September 2018 proposal for signing a peace treaty without preconditions. This would allow Tokyo to leave the territorial question ambiguous and thereby draw Washington further into the entangled regional geopolitics by essentially buck-passing to its American ally its own security responsibility for the Far East. After all, the ongoing geopolitical feud with Russia is the West’s problem, not Japan’s. Moreover, a more militarily engaged United States in the Far East would also provide Tokyo with greater room for maneuver in its maritime security efforts in the Indo-Pacific to check Beijing’s growing regional clout.
Meanwhile, Tokyo would be able to focus on economic cooperation with Moscow, opening up a range of geoeconomic opportunities from development of Siberia and the Russian Far East to even participation in regional economic initiatives, such as the Eurasian Economic Union. Therefore, Japan’s emerging alliance entanglement with the United States over the Kuril islands would paradoxically offer Abe an unexpected opportunity to turn the tables and seize the initiative by singularly focusing on signing a peace treaty, the common goal for both Russia and Japan. This could unleash Japan’s latent potential as a major geoeconomic power across Eurasia while boosting Russia’s pivot to Asia, possibly spawning a regional alternative to China’s expanding Eurasian Silk Road Belt.
As the fourth industrial revolution accelerates digital-physical connectivity toward a Eurasian supercontinent from Lisbon to Vladivostok, the world’s third largest economy finds itself with a historic opportunity to once again position itself as the Far Eastern terminus of the emerging silk road just as its 8th-century predecessor thrived in the ancient regional integration. Tokyo’s enhanced geoeconomic engagement with Eurasian countries would also be a much-needed complement to Washington’s diminishing regional influence, potentially producing a continental version of the “U.S.-Japan+Alpha” formula increasingly applied across the Indo-Pacific in recent years. A Russia-Japan peace treaty would therefore hold the key to unlocking Eurasia’s full geoeconomic potential.
Abe’s bromance with Putin may be over, but there is still hope for a Russia-Japan peace treaty. The latest summit was a reality check for the Japanese leader who bills himself at home as a seasoned global statesman but has virtually yielded his entire initiative over the territorial talks to the mercy of great power politics. While he may not leave a desired legacy as the first Japanese leader to resolve the lingering territorial dispute on Tokyo’s terms, he could reverse this intractable vestige of World War Two by pulling off a paradigm shift in the country’s foreign policy. Such a undertaking would involve accepting Putin’s olive branch while clarifying a new division of labor within the U.S.-Japan alliance vis-a-vis Russia. This time, Japan could pursue peace through development as a proactive geoeconomic player across Eurasia instead of just serving as Washington’s forward deployment base. Abe’s vision for preventing a Moscow- Beijing alliance is in line with Washington’s regional interests. Recognizing such convergence would be a starting point for crafting a new regional balance of power in the Far East and securing a peace deal with an eye toward Japan’s integration into the emerging Eurasian supercontinent. Having secured his term till 2021, only Abe presently appears capable of accomplishing such a historic task.
Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D. (@drjwalk) is Global Head of Strategic Initiatives and Japan at Eurasia Group and leads the Japan work at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Hidetoshi Azuma (@hazuma_jpn) is executive assistant at Eurasia Group.