Shinzo Abe’s Unfinished Deal with Russia

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In his farewell address to the nation last month, outgoing Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe lamented an unfinished deal with an unlikely foreign power: Russia. The despondent reference to Russia was a natural choice for the prime minister, who dedicated a large part of his tenure toward formalizing peace in the Far East. The two countries are still at odds over the fate of the four southern Kuril islands that have remained under Moscow’s control ever since the Soviet Red Army seized them during the final days of World War II. In fact, Japan and Russia have not signed a peace treaty ending the war per se, although “the state of war” between the two countries ended in 1956. The prime minister’s search for peace faced obstacles from the outset, ranging from the Obama administration’s frequent interference to, most recently, COVID-19. It was a tale of pure tragedy in which the Japanese leader confronted an impossible proposition in order to fulfill the country’s newfound geostrategic imperative only to end up empty-handed.

Abe’s Russia agenda was not just about bilateral ties with Russia. Instead, it was a catalyst promoting an ambitious geopolitical vision in which Japan would assume a more prominent role in the international system, pursue foreign policy initiatives that were in part independent of the United States while still maintaining close ties with Washington, and secure its unique place on the Eurasian continent increasingly led by Moscow and Beijing. Abe’s framework challenged postwar Japan’s foreign policy orthodoxy while shaping the contours of the country’s emerging strategic approach. Abe’s vision bore striking resemblance to the one embraced by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in the 1990s and, controversially for some, Japan’s imperial forebears before World War II. While he did not succeed in improving Russo-Japanese ties during his time in office, he may have paved the way for a future rapprochement between the two countries and possibly Tokyo’s more proactive engagement with other Eurasian countries.

Russia in Abe’s Geopolitical Vision

Japan’s failed bid for peace with Russia was perhaps the most visible manifestation of Abe’s sui generis foreign policy doctrine known as the “Proactive Contribution to Peace.” Under this doctrine, Tokyo would proactively shape “an international order and security environment that are desirable for Japan … based on the principle of international cooperation.” Indeed, unlike most of his postwar predecessors largely content with a Japan as Washington’s security protectorate, the departing Japanese prime minister long sought to position the country as the regional lynchpin in Asia with its own geopolitical vision. In fact, Washington’s 2017 “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” concept derived in part from Abe’s 2007 speech in India aptly titled “Confluence of the Two Seas,” in which a maritime coalition of democratic powers would support the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” along the rim of the Eurasian landmass. The intellectual undertones of Anglo-American geopolitical thinkers like Halford Mackinder, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Nicholas Spykman, were evident in Abe’s imagination. Although his first term prematurely ended in 2007, Abe’s worldview received a significant upgrade when he returned to the Kantei in December 2012, immediately after which he unveiled “Asia’s Democratic Security Diamond.” The concept advocated Japan as a regional hub linking the United States, Australia, and India as the core powers of a maritime coalition in the Indo-Pacific, laying a solid foundation for the ultimate revival of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in 2017.

In addition to his maneuvering across the Indo-Pacific, Abe spent equal, if not more, diplomatic energy on his signature engagement with Russia. Unlike in the case of the Indo-Pacific, his Russia agenda appeared to lack a comparable declared vision for Eurasia and was not always well-articulated. In fact, this was deliberate on Abe’s part because Imperial Japan’s experience in Eurasia and its postwar successor’s Cold War allegiance to the West long rendered any policy discourse on the region politically untenable. Despite Russia’s alienation from much of the international community after the annexation of Crimea, Abe held more meetings (27) with Russian president Vladimir Putin than any other foreign counterpart since 2013. At each summit with Putin, he demonstrated his enthusiasm for a personal relationship with the Russian strongman. His strategy appeared to consist of leveraging his supposed friendship with Putin and economic largesse to force a package deal for a peace treaty and a territorial resolution. However, Abe would withdraw his proposal for a territorial resolution from time to time when spurned by his Russian counterpart, further stoking confusion surrounding his true agenda.

Ultimately, Abe’s efforts with Putin produced few tangible results. While it is reasonable to characterize Abe’s Russia policy as a failure, such a descriptor is shortsighted. The prime minister upended Japan’s adversarial approach to Russia, which could pave the way for improved ties in the future. In addition, the effort always faced long odds. The territorial problem was a product of great-power machinations at the 1945 Yalta Conference over which Imperial Japan had no control. Postwar Japan was Washington’s creation, designed to function as a bulwark against the Soviet Union. The result was the emergence and consolidation of the Yoshida Doctrine, under which former Prime Minister Shigeru Yoshida positioned postwar Japan firmly within the confines of the U.S. Cold War strategy in Asia as a military ally. It was a brilliant geostrategic move that ultimately enabled postwar Japan’s economic miracle, but it rigidly subordinated Tokyo’s foreign policy to Washington and did little to address the Yalta arrangement with Russia. In this context, the Kurillian knot was devised not to be untangled but only to be cut, a virtually impossible proposition given Tokyo’s inherently subordinate status in global great-power politics. Indeed, it was Washington that interfered with Tokyo’s diplomatic gamble for a territorial breakthrough with the Soviet Union in 1956, effectively freezing any hopes for a resolution.

Abe’s single most important foreign policy legacy lies in his unwavering determination to challenge and transcend the Yoshida Doctrine, and his Russia agenda was perhaps the most vivid display of his unique diplomatic approach. In fact, the Japanese leader attempted to position his engagement with Russia as part of a broader geopolitical framework promoting Japan’s unique place in the region. He revealed glimpses of such a framework twice during the last seven years. In 2016, Abe unveiled his ambitious blueprint for brokering Russia’s reentry into the G7, immediately incurring a personal rebuke from President Barack Obama. Much to Obama’s consternation, the Japanese premier snubbed Washington’s reprimand and was the first G7 leader to attend a summit with Putin since Russia’s eviction in 2014. Although Abe’s foreign policy stunt ultimately failed to achieve its stated objective, it reflected his personal conviction of Japan’s special mission as the regional bridge between the two great powers. By 2019, his perspective on Russia had acquired renewed geostrategic significance, and he began emphasizing the importance of preventing a “Sino-Russian alliance,” which could embroil Japan in an unwinnable two-front war in Asia. Indeed, Abe’s Russia policy quietly yet consistently sought to achieve an elusive regional balancing act almost from the beginning. In 2013, he spearheaded an unprecedented security partnership with the Kremlin with the creation of a 2 + 2 foreign and defense ministerial dialogue. While the direct diplomatic channel between Russia and Japan remained virtually suspended in the wake of the 2014 Ukrainian crisis, Abe wasted no time in promoting Tokyo’s geo-economic influence by pouring approximately $30 billion into various strategic infrastructure projects across Central Asia in direct competition with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

The prime minister’s new approach to Russia in 2016 placed greater emphasis on economic cooperation in Siberia and the Russian Far East. Indeed, Abe’s $3 billion economic munificence toward Moscow created a false sense of promise of a coming territorial breakthrough. These expectations enabled him to distance Japan from the Cold War dogma, if not taboo, surrounding Tokyo’s established claim to the four southern Kuril islands. As the early postwar foreign policy debates in Japan demonstrate, the very term “northern territories” was a politically expedient device to justify the Yoshida Doctrine and gradually became a diplomatic article of faith by 1964. Indeed, due to their geographical proximity, the “northern territories” spawned a sense of urgency in the public and became the symbol of Tokyo’s Cold War-era foreign policy doctrine. As if to break away from this historical legacy, Abe chose not to reject Putin’s 2018 offer of a peace treaty without preconditions and began a lengthy process of wavering over the territorial question itself, ultimately leading to the temporary yet unprecedented de facto withdrawal of Tokyo’s claims to the islands in 2019. In fact, during this process, the idea of shelving the territorial issue emerged as a serious option, further signifying the undoing of the Yoshida Doctrine on Abe’s watch.

America’s Role in Abe’s Outreach to Russia

Abe’s peculiar approach to Russia was driven by concern about U.S. disengagement and growing recognition of Japan’s need for an independent foreign policy. The Obama administration’s perceived foreign policy restraint, such as its strategic patience toward North Korea, created a renewed sense of urgency among Japanese decision-makers, including Abe himself. This spurred Tokyo to gradually shed its historical passivity and pursue a more robust and independent foreign policy agenda. After the Obama-era New Silk Road Initiative had become a lame duck by the mid-2010s, Tokyo sought to take matters into its own hands and advance its interests in Eurasia. Abe’s historic 2015 tour to Central Asia and his re-engagement with the then-isolated Russia in 2016 were a turning point.

The election of President Donald Trump in November 2016 did not assuage Tokyo’s fears about U.S. foreign policy. Immediately after the election, Abe described president-elect Trump’s unpredictability as paradoxically an opportunity for Tokyo to accelerate the process of weaning itself off from Washington. As the new administration took office in January 2017, Trump’s long-held views of America’s allies immediately became palpable in his foreign policy, including the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and his reported threat to rescind the U.S.-Japanese defense treaty — moves that amplified concerns about America’s reliability within the Japanese establishment.

As the Trump presidency upended assumptions about America’s role in the world, Abe began rushing for a peace deal with Russia, even at the expense of Japan’s longstanding territorial claim. Moreover, Abe’s Russia agenda increasingly acquired higher stakes, as his negotiations with Putin focused on implications of the ongoing peace talks for the U.S.-Japanese alliance. The prime minister then did the unthinkable at a November 2018 summit, where he personally promised Putin that he would not allow U.S. bases to be built on the two smaller Kuril islands if Russia ever agreed to hand them over to Japan. Meanwhile, Japan resumed and hosted the 2+2 foreign and defense ministerial dialogue with Russia each year beginning in 2017 and even invited Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian general staff, to Tokyo at a time the news of the alleged Russian election meddling dominated Washington.

Apart from these immediate geostrategic imperatives, Abe’s peculiar approach to Russia was essentially the resurrection of the Eurasian diplomacy doctrine spearheaded by former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto in the late 1990s. Hashimoto was the first Japanese leader to proactively engage Eurasia in search for Tokyo’s independent foreign policy in the post-Cold War world. Russia would play a prominent role in his geopolitical vision, which sought “to draw [the country] into the Asia Pacific and introduce a new regional dynamic that would give Japan more room to maneuver vis-à-vis China and the United States.” His declaration of the Silk Road diplomacy firmly anchored Japan to the post-Soviet Central Asia, laying the foundation for his successor Junichiro Koizumi’s 2004 Central Asia + Japan initiative. Abe’s Russia agenda was therefore the culmination of Hashimoto’s legacy with a renewed focus on economic cooperation and regional integration across Eurasia.

Another important factor unique to Abe’s Eurasian geostrategy was the obscure ideology of pan-Asianism and its historical interactions with Russia. Before World War II, Japan often viewed Russia as a potential partner, albeit with some reservations, to balance its main geopolitical rivals: the British Empire, China, and the United States. Imperial Japan in the 1930s and early 1940s, inspired by pan-Asianism, sought to create zones of influence across the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia. Tokyo pursued a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in the Indo-Pacific and the Anti-communist Corridor across the Eurasian continent, where Japan was to become the common leader advancing its version of regional integration — and Japanese dominance. The Eurasian corridor was to unite and integrate the Turanian regions spanning from Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, and Turkestan all the way to Turkey into Japan’s sphere of influence. This would serve as Imperial Japan’s Eurasian buffer zone that would, in theory, counter both communist Russia and China. The Sino-Japanese War and the deteriorating relationship with the United States drove Imperial Japan to sign a neutrality pact with the Soviet Union in 1941, allowing Tokyo to leverage the emerging Turanian space to check China while expanding its maritime sphere of influence. Significantly, a neutral Russia allowed Tokyo to focus on pursuing hegemony across both the Indo-Pacific and the Eurasian continent.

Abe, the grandson of the pan-Asianist former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who served from 1957 to 1960, largely inherited his grandfather’s worldview. His Russia policy, in retrospect, unmistakably exhibited various traits of the forgotten ideology, although economic diplomacy had replaced its expansionist bent. Indeed, Abe’s Japan faced a geopolitical predicament similar to that of Imperial Japan in the 1930s, but this time Beijing’s regional clout looks to expand almost indefinitely while Washington’s commitment to the alliance remains highly uncertain. The prime minister’s pan-Asianist impulse has left indelible marks on Tokyo’s full embrace of Washington’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and its unrealized Eurasian integration initiative, which the Japanese leader attempted to achieve beyond a peace deal with Russia. Just as Kishi consolidated Japan’s presence in Southeast Asia while upgrading its security treaty with the United States, Abe remained careful throughout not to allow pan-Asianism’s anti-American past to interfere with Tokyo’s alliance commitments. Instead, he strove to position his ideologically driven foreign policy to complement Washington’s Asia policy and even spawned a possible “US-Japan+alpha” framework (e.g., United States-Japan-Israel or Untied States-Japan-India-Australia, etc.) to guide the future of the alliance.

What’s Next?

The significance of Abe’s diplomatic waltz with Putin over the last seven years lies in his deliberate attempts to achieve a paradigm shift in Japan’s geopolitical thinking. It was a highly personal, ideological agenda from the beginning, and one that endured endless criticisms at home and abroad. While Abe achieved no tangible results in peace talks with the Kremlin, let alone the stated objective of splitting the Sino-Russian alliance, his foreign policy legacy is indisputable. Indeed, Japan’s fledgling Eurasian strategy would be a welcome counterweight against China at a time when Putin is looking to consolidate his own unique place on the continent and Trump is reported to have been contemplating a possible grand bargain with Russia to check Beijing’s ambitions.

Splitting a Sino-Russian alliance may be beyond Japan’s abilities, but Abe’s intrepid proposition provided the country with a geostrategic rationale for positioning itself as a force to be reckoned with across the Eurasian continent. Abe was a rare geopolitical visionary in Japanese history. He had his own failings but bequeathed an unequivocal foreign policy legacy to the nation that now finds itself back on the world stage with global responsibilities and commitments. While Tokyo braces for the coming post-Abe era, Abe’s unfinished deal with Russia will likely remain underappreciated at home in the immediate future. Ultimately Abe’s enduring influence on the trajectory of Japan’s foreign policy will only be appreciated in time.



Joshua W. Walker, Ph.D., (@drjwalk) is president and CEO at the Japan Society. Hidetoshi Azuma (@hazuma_jpn) is an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project.

Image: Kremlin