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The Case of Skripal and Japan

Why the Land of the Rising Sun has not expelled Russian diplomats

The Case of Skripal and Japan
Photo: Alexander Shcherbak / TASS

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
In March of this year, leading Western countries began the coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats in connection with the accusation of Russia by British Prime Minister Theresa May of allegedly using her chemical weapons in the attempted murder of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the English city of Salisbury. More than 20 countries have expelled over 100 Russian diplomats, with the United States alone expelling 60. These actions were presented in Europe and the United States as a manifestation of international solidarity in response to the aggressive actions of Moscow. Of the GXNUMX countries, only Japan refrained from expelling Russian diplomats. Moreover, at first, official Tokyo avoided the rampant campaign of condemnation of Russia unfolded in the West. This caused a wave of criticism of the Shinzo Abe administration both domestically and abroad. The Japanese government was accused of not keeping pace with the rest of the world's democracies in the Skripal case.

For example, the Japanese officialdom - the Japan Times newspaper in its March 27 issue wrote about this: “The international partners of Great Britain duly responded to what British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson called“ the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ”. However, there is one notable exception. Although the Japanese government was presented with the same evidence, it refused to directly blame Russia, remaining the only member of the GXNUMX who did not support the UK accusation or expel Russian officials. "

The newspaper further notes with regret that instead, in a telephone conversation with the Russian leader on March 19, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe simply stated that "the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable and, above all, it is important to establish the facts." Abe used the same phone call to congratulate Vladimir Putin on his victory in the presidential elections in Russia and to express his desire for closer cooperation.

This slurred reaction from Tokyo prompted Theresa May to immediately request a phone call from Shinzo Abe on March 20. The purpose of the call was to encourage Japan to make a tougher statement at a scheduled meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono in Tokyo the next day. However, to the displeasure of supporters of a tough approach to Russia at a meeting of high-ranking diplomats of the two countries, Kono only repeated Abe's neutral words. Moreover, the meeting of the foreign ministers took place in a relaxed atmosphere. In response to Kono's joke that the Russian delegation had brought an incredible snowfall with them, Lavrov replied with his own joke: we did not interfere in your elections, so we decided to interfere in your weather. Kono also gave his Russian counterpart a cake on the occasion of his birthday.

They did not stand aside from attacks on the Abe administration and other leading newspapers in Japan, demanding that it immediately join other countries in taking concrete measures to punish Moscow for the Skripal case. In this regard, the right-wing conservative "Sankei Shimbun", which burst into a series of articles on this topic, especially tried. In particular, former Sovietologist Hiroshi Kimura, who is now an honorary professor at the University of Hokkaido Prefecture, has appeared in its repertoire.

In his article, published in the issue of 12.04.2018/7/XNUMX, he assesses the "Skripal case" no more, no less, as calling into question the entire Japanese policy towards Russia. The Japanese professor frankly writes that the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with the help of building a relationship of trust between the leaders of Japan and Russia, is seeking in the negotiations on the northern territories (four islands of the southern Kuriles - EastRussia) the implementation of their plans to return these territories. Therefore, it takes a negative stance on the sanctions that the G-XNUMX (Big Seven) imposed against Russia due to the annexation of Crimea. However, now, according to Kimura, in connection with the Skripal case, Japan is facing the need to make an important decision in its policy towards Russia.

Other Japanese commentators are also unanimous in their view that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's desire not to aggravate relations with Moscow in connection with the Skripal affair is due to hopes of obtaining concessions from Moscow in the territorial dispute over the southern Kuriles. The aforementioned Japan Times explicitly points out that the reason for the Japanese government's restraint is that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe does not want anything to interfere with his pursuit of a territorial deal with Russia. In May, he will travel to Russia, where he will meet with Putin for the 21st time. According to the newspaper, this visit will be the culmination of Abe's "new approach" to Russia. Announced in May 2016, the policy calls for the use of economic incentives and leaders' “personal relationships of trust” to seek a solution to the country's territorial dispute, which would allow for a peace treaty.

In the course of the upcoming talks with Putin, Abe specifically hopes for a breakthrough in joint economic activities on the disputed islands. Five priority areas for this activity have already been selected, but the parties have yet to agree on the legal framework for the projects. However, the newspaper stresses, this is not so easy, because Japan requires the creation of a special legal regime that would allow Japanese entities to operate on the islands without recognizing Russian sovereignty. The Japan Times frankly writes that although these projects are small-scale, their significance will be that they will allow the return of the Japanese presence to the islands for the first time since, according to the newspaper, their occupation by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. According to Abe's calculations, the restoration of Japanese influence on the islands could serve as the first step towards the final return of the territory.

True, the publication makes a reservation, even if Japan had a real chance to return the islands, the lack of solidarity (with Western countries in the "Skripal case" - EastRussia) on the part of the Abe administration would be regrettable. However, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that Abe has no real prospect of a breakthrough. Indeed, on the eve of his arrival in Japan in April, Lavrov reaffirmed the position of the Russian government that any joint projects should be carried out in accordance with Russian law. Instead of being distracted by his fruitless efforts to reclaim the four northern islands in order to create his historical legacy, Abe should focus on demonstrating that Japan is a reliable partner in security, and not just "a friend only in good weather," concludes the publication.

Against the background of a chorus of Japanese critics of Russia, and at the same time of its own government, on the occasion of the Skripal case, the well-known retired politician Yukio Hatoyama performed a lonely “out of the box” solo. As leader of the then Democratic Party of Japan, he led the Japanese government from September 16, 2009 to June 4, 2010. The former prime minister shared his personal opinion on the Skripal case online. Hatoyama wrote on his Twitter that this whole story is not accidental. He stressed the fact that a loud scandal happened shortly before the FIFA World Cup, which will be held in Russia in the summer of 2018. The Japanese leader also recalls that the events in Ukraine took place just before the Sochi Olympics. Hatoyama notes that Russia had no motive to kill Skripal, and points out that it does not have reserves of gas used against him in accordance with the Chemical Weapons Convention. According to Hatoyama, the "Skripal case" is being used by British Prime Minister Theresa May solely in order to attack Russian President Putin with criticism.

And yet, by all accounts, Abe's administration could not withstand outside pressure and joined other G17 members on April 7 in agreeing that it was Russia that was probably behind the attack on Skripal. In a statement released that day, the G-4 foreign ministers endorsed the UK's finding that "there is no plausible alternative explanation" other than that Russia was responsible for the attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury March 7th. However, Foreign Minister Taro Kono made a reservation later that day in Tokyo that Japan still hoped that the incident would come to light through further investigation by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and British police. However, Kono stressed that Japan does not intend to follow other G-XNUMX members in the expulsion of Russian diplomats because of the incident.

The paradox of the situation is that in the midst of a fierce anti-Russian campaign over the Skripal case, in which Japan is involved, albeit on a limited scale, Russia lifted the ban on seafood imports from this country at the end of March. It was introduced in connection with the disaster at the Fuchsima-1 nuclear power plant in March 2011 due to the danger of their radiation contamination. And this despite the fact that despite the urgent requests of Tokyo, more than twenty countries, including China, South Korea and the European Union, still maintain a complete or partial ban on the import of Japanese seafood.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a Moscow security conference in early April that many countries that expelled Russian diplomats over the so-called Skripal case were "twisted". In his words, this is being done to demonize Russia. Lavrov's words can be fully attributed to Japan, which, although it did not expel Russian diplomats, nevertheless, as a result of external pressure, nevertheless officially, albeit unsubstantiated, condemned Russia in this "case."

Such a move is unlikely to contribute to the creation of a favorable atmosphere for further negotiations on the settlement of territorial negotiations and the conclusion of a peace treaty between the two countries. Including during the upcoming meetings between Putin and Abe in Moscow and St. Petersburg in May this year.
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