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Mainstream, VOL LI No 21, May 11, 2013

Moscow Reserved on Rare Japanese Visitor

Saturday 11 May 2013, by M K Bhadrakumar

For a rare visit by a Japanese Prime Minister to Russia after a glaring gap of a decade, Shinzo Abe himself set three benchmarks as he set out from Tokyo on April 28. He said he sought to establish a relationship of personal trust with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Abe compared himself with Putin as a leader with a “clear-cut objective” to make his country strong and prosperous.

Secondly, he hoped to outline the “possibilities for the full development” of Japan-Russia relations in the future. Abe added: “Japan and Russia have common benefits, common interest in maintaining peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region.”

Thirdly, Abe said he proposed to give a new start to the stalled negotiations for a peace treaty between the two countries that would give impetus to their relations. Clearly, the third stated objective has been fulfilled, with the joint statement issued after Abe’s talks with Putin acknowledging that the absence of a peace treaty seven decades after World War II ended is “abnormal”.

Abe mentioned it as a “great result” of his visit, although the details of the talks are sketchy. Putin was circumspect. He said:

The negotiations have essentially been frozen in recent years and today we have agreed to resume contact in that area. This does not mean that we will settle everything tomorrow, if the problem has not been resolved for the past 67-68 years. But at least we will continue to work on this complex issue that is so important for both countries.

Abe responded by admitting that “sufficiently great differences remain” with regard to the disputed Kurile Islands and the talks needed to be “conducted without haste”.

A Bird in Hand is Worth Two ...

Meanwhile, Putin suggested that the development of bilateral economic ties would be the best way of addressing the range of issues in Russia-Japan ties, including the signing of a peace treaty.

Having said that, the big surprise of the visit was that no major energy deals were clinched. What was widely expected to be the flagship of Russia-Japan energy cooperation, namely, Japanese participation in Gazprom’s US$ 38 billion project to develop and connect its gas fields in eastern Siberia to a liquefied natural gas [LNG] export hub near Vladivostok, apparently did not figure in the talks.

At least, the Russian side has decided not to seek Japan’s participation in the project for the present. Putin merely said that Gazprom is ready to help Japan build new facilities to import gas. Moscow seems to prefer retaining the flexibility to diversify its LNG exports to being tied largely to the Japanese market.

Russia is straining every nerve to build up an Asian market for its LNG exports, and the shutdown of 48 of Japan’s 50 nuclear reactors following the Fukushima disaster has led to a sharp rise in demand for LNG for thermal power plants.

But Moscow would be sensing that Tokyo might attempt to drive down the price by pitting Gazprom against LNG suppliers from the United States and Middle East while, on the other hand, attach political strings at some point as regards Japan-China tensions in the East China Sea.

During the recent visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Russia, the two leaderships agreed to support each other on issues involving their “core interests” and territorial integrity.

Without doubt, geopolitics played its part in no small measure in Abe’s mission to Moscow, as Tokyo takes note of the unprecedented heights that Russia-China strategic cooperation and coordination have scaled recently.

Abe most certainly probed the extent to which Moscow could be goaded into diversifying its political and economic relationships in the Asia-Pacific and, specifically, towards encouraging the perennial Russian desire to be a lone ranger and a “balancer”.

Moscow is comfortably placed insofar as Beijing does not expect it to lock it in within a common front against Japan and would trust the Russian side to appreciate on its own the value of what the close partnership with China offers, which could be very substantial both intrinsically and relatively.

Disquieting Signs

Put differently, the resilience of the Russia-China strategic partnership was on trial during the Abe visit and it re-emerged unscathed. Having said that, Moscow’s interest also lies at the moment in the development of the far-flung Siberian and Russian Far East regions, and Japan is a key player in the Russian calculus both in terms of the technology and capital it offers as well as the much-needed “balance” it provides to reduce what could otherwise turn out to be a heavy over-dependence on China.

However, Russian diplomacy also took care not to overreach by seeking a stronger relation-ship with Japan, and in sum the impression becomes unavoidable that Moscow handled the Abe visit with a delicate mix of hope and reserve, and if any hype was given to the visit, it was most entirely the doing of the Japanese side.

The heart of the matter is that disquieting signs have appeared in the directions of Japanese foreign policy lately, and Moscow needs to weigh the implications.

Hardly a fortnight before his Russia visit, Abe signed a Joint Political Declaration with the Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), Anders Fogh Rasmussen, which is the first declaration of its kind between the two sides, committing them historically to a new level of relationship. The document speaks about “common security challenges” and underlines the prospects of “closer coordination in managing crisis situations”.

Rasmussen’s tour of Japan (and South Korea) has been an unmistakable assertion that the Western alliance will figure as a fixture in the Asia-Pacific security architecture and will play a role in issues affecting regional stability. Moscow cannot but take note of this as a milestone in NATO’s worldwide expansion as a global security organisation outside the purview of the United Nations.

Equally, Moscow has expressed concern on the deployment of the US’ defence missile system to the Asia-Pacific. There have been high-level discussions on this issue between Russia and China, and statements have appeared in recent months articulating common interest with China in meeting the new challenge to the strategic balance that the US deployment poses.

By a curious coincidence, when Abe was in the middle of his Russia visit, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel chose to disclose that the US and Japan have achieved progress on the issue of deploying an additional missile defence radar on Japanese soil amid a perceived threat posed by North Korea. Already, Washington has announced that an additional 14 land-based interceptor missiles will be stationed in Alaska to bring their overall tally to 44.

Demons of Nationalism

To cap it all, the last public function attended by Abe in Tokyo on April 28 before enplaning for Russia was the first-ever ceremony of the “Restoration of Sovereignty” to mark the end of the allied occupation of the country following its defeat in World War II.

“We have a responsibility to make Japan a strong and resolute country that others across the world can rely on,” Abe said at the ceremony, which was attended by Emperor Akhihito and Empress Michiko. April 28, 1952, was the day the San Francisco Treaty took effect.

Russia was not party to the San Francisco Treaty but its shadows fall on the Kurile Islands. Besides, Abe’s real political agenda is to loosen Japan’s self-imposed restrictions on its armed forces, which introduces a new matrix altogether in addition to the US “rebalancing” strategy.

Suffice to say, Russia is not in the same boat as China and South Korea to worry about the rising tide of Japanese nationalism and asserti-veness, since both those countries were occupied by the Japanese during World War II, whereas Russia was not. But then, the fact remains that Abe is releasing the demons of nationalism, and his ambivalence over the history of Japan’s aggression worries many countries.

The New York Times and Washington Post have strongly criticised Abe in recent editorials for stoking the tensions in the Asia-Pacific. In a scathing attack on Abe in the weekend, the Financial Times newspaper wrote that riding a massive wave of 70 per cent approval rating, Abe is letting the mask of his “inner nationalism” slip and his actions have “provoked a predictable reaction” from South Korea and China and have “annoyed” the US.

“His [Abe’s] forays into revisionism are distractions at best, dangerous at worst. He should stick to his knitting,” the FT wrote. Such troubled thoughts would probably have been on Putin’s mind too when at the joint press conference with Abe on April 29 he chose to give “tough and straightforward” remarks on the Kuriles problem.

Putin stressed that a solution should be found in a “benevolent” and trusting atmos-phere and the reality is that Russian citizens live on the disputed islands and their welfare is important. Indeed, as a Xinhua commentary noted, there is “little hope of a breakthrough” on the dispute over the Kuriles, and so long as Abe’s demons of “inner nationalism” keep popping up, Moscow and Tokyo may continue to go round and round in circles. 

(Courtesy: Asia Times)

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

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