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Russia and Japan: the dialogue continues

The outcome of the meeting between Putin and Abe is an agreement on further negotiations

Despite the significant cooling of Russia's relations with the US and other leading Western countries that imposed sanctions on Russia over the Crimea and Ukraine, the year 2016 and the beginning of this year were marked by a significant rapprochement between Russia and Japan in the political and economic fields. This is evidenced by intensive contacts between the two countries at various levels and in various fields, including bilateral summits. At the same time, one can not but admit that the main "engine" of these contacts is personally the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who visited Russia last year two times in a row - Sochi in May and Vladivostok in September. Apparently, in resolving the territorial problem in Russian-Japanese relations, Abe makes a personal bet on President Vladimir Putin.

Russia and Japan: the dialogue continues
Photo: shutterstock.com

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies

In total, four Russian-Japanese summits were held in 2016, including a rendezvous between President Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the APEC summit in the Peruvian capital Lima in November, as well as President Putin's long-awaited official visit to Japan on December 15-16. On April 27-28 this year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid a regular visit to Moscow. The April summit was the 17th meeting of Abe and Putin (including three of their meetings during Abe's first term in 2006-2007). Traditionally, the focus of the talks between the two leaders was bilateral economic and political relations, as well as pressing international problems.

The economic agenda of the April talks was focused on the implementation of the eight-point economic cooperation plan proposed by Abe to Putin in May 2016 in Sochi. It was issued in December in Tokyo in the form of about 80 documents of a public and private nature, totaling approximately $ 2,5 billion. In addition, the leaders discussed in Moscow joint economic activities in the southern Kuril Islands, which Japan claims, calling them their own. northern territories. An agreement on it was also reached in Tokyo.

However, the economic results of the just held talks between Putin and Abe turned out to be very modest. During the visit, Russian and Japanese representatives signed a set of 29 new agreements on cooperation in the fields of agriculture, urban infrastructure, medicine, training and energy. As in the case of 80 documents signed during the previous summit, a significant portion of them were memorandums of understanding, agreements of intent and other little-binding agreements. In addition, the First Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Igor Shuvalov and the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan Hiroshige Seko (who is also the Minister for Economic Cooperation with Russia) agreed on a joint statement on the progress of cooperation in implementing the 8-point plan proposed in the past year as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

With regard to joint economic activities in the four South Kuril Islands, as the mouthpiece of the Japanese business community notes, the Nikkei newspaper, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin showed a spirit of cooperation at their meeting in Moscow, taking small steps towards a solution long-standing territorial dispute. The two leaders agreed to send a Japanese research team to the disputed islands on the southern tip of the Kuril ridge no later than May to explore possible joint economic projects.

The mixed delegation, made up of representatives of the business world and relevant government agencies in Japan, will be the first of its kind in the entire post-war period. The result of this visit should be a set of specific projects that Russia and Japan will jointly implement in the southern Kuriles. In parallel, work will be carried out to develop a legal framework for the implementation of joint economic activities. During talks in Moscow, Putin and Abe agreed to work together on fish farming and ecotourism on the islands. It was also decided to organize charter flights this summer from the Japanese island of Hokkaido to the South Kuril islands of Kunashir and Iturup in order to facilitate visits to the graves of their ancestors by former Japanese inhabitants of these islands.

At a joint press conference, the Japanese prime minister announced his desire to significantly expand joint economic activity. He suggested that efforts on this front would lead to progress in the territorial dispute and eventually result in a long-awaited peace treaty. The Russian president, for his part, called Japan an exceptionally important partner with great potential.

In particular, he stressed that he spoke with Abe about the plans for the joint construction of the Sakhalin-Hokkaido gas pipeline, the creation of a marine energy bridge for the supply of electricity from Russia to Japan, and cooperation in the field of renewable and unconventional energy sources. The implementation of these promising projects, according to Putin, will help provide Japanese consumers with additional energy resources on the shortest routes and at affordable prices.

According to the same Nikkei, an official in the Japanese government expressed relief in connection with specific agreements reached at the meeting. According to the newspaper, from a source close to the prime minister, Abe has recently repeatedly expressed impatience at the hitch in negotiations since the previous summit in December. But further sailing, the newspaper notes, will not be smooth. Russia plans to hold presidential elections next March, and some forces in the country refuse to make any kind of compromise on the disputed islands. Further friction between Moscow and Washington over North Korea and Syria, according to the newspaper, can also put Japan in a difficult position.

Indeed, along with bilateral relations, Putin and Abe paid great attention to the North Korean problem. As noted by the largest Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun, the bilateral meeting between Abe and Putin took place in the context of the tense situation in North Korea and Syria, as well as the growing confrontation between the United States and Russia. The combination of conflicts in the international community casts a shadow on Russian-Japanese relations. According to Reuters, Putin and Abe have called on North Korea and other countries to avoid actions or rhetoric that could heighten tensions over Pyongyang's nuclear program. Both leaders expressed their desire to see the resumption of the six-party talks with North Korea. And the Asahi Shibun newspaper directly links the situation on the Korean Peninsula with the possibility of solving the territorial problem between Japan and Russia. The publication writes: “Peace and stability in Northeast Asia is also necessary to resolve the long-standing territorial dispute over the islands. A question that could have a serious impact on bilateral ties is how Japan and Russia can work together in response to the tense situation around North Korea. Both countries need to work out an effective formula for bilateral cooperation for regional stability as a first step towards a peace treaty. "

Thus, the difficult problems of bilateral relations between Russia and Japan, as well as the aggravating situation in East Asia and other regions of the world, make further cooperation between Russia and Japan in various fields imperative. On this score, James Brown, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo and an expert on Russian-Japanese relations, notes in the Japan Times that "courting Putin" despite the discontent of Washington and other Western capitals, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not only pursues the goal of obtaining disputed island, but also has certain strategic designs. They consist in the fact that with the help of Russia, if possible, neutralize the two main threats to Japan's security today, according to Japanese politicians and experts - from China, which is increasing its military power and maritime activity, and North Korea, which is improving its nuclear missile potential.

Regarding the April summit, the expert, in particular, writes: “The last summit in Moscow ended with Abe expressing his enthusiasm that he would see Putin again at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg in July. He also confirmed his promise to visit Vladivostok in September. The upcoming two meetings with Putin are unlikely to lead to a major breakthrough on the territorial issue, raising even more doubts about Abe's seemingly odd obsession with the Russian leader. Nevertheless, Abe's one-sided male friendship with Putin, generated by the long-term plan for the islands and strategic calculations, will apparently continue. "

At the same time, it should be noted that, as it was throughout the post-war period, Tokyo is forced to coordinate its policy towards Moscow with its main and only military-political ally - the United States. Thus, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, on May 1, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a 30-minute telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump. The details of the conversation were not disclosed, but according to the newspaper, the focus of the dialogue was the results of Abe's visit to Moscow in April, as well as the coordination of the policy of the two allies towards North Korea. According to the newspaper, it is no secret that Abe and Trump also spoke by phone on the eve of the Japanese Prime Minister's trip to Moscow.

In short, the change of presidents in the United States does not change the shadow of Uncle Sam over Russian-Japanese relations.
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