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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 the rendezvous of President Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe on the margins of the APEC summit in Lima, the capital of Peru, as well as the long-awaited official visit of President Putin to Japan 15-16 December. 27-28 April this year, a regular visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Moscow. The April summit was the 17 meeting of Abe and Putin (including three of their meetings during Abe's first prime time in 2006-2007). Traditionally, the focus of the negotiations of the two leaders was bilateral economic and political relations, as well as current international problems.

The economic agenda of the April talks was focused on the implementation of the eight-point economic cooperation plan proposed to Abe Putin in May of 2016 in Sochi. He received a clearance in December in Tokyo in the form of approximately 80 public and private documents for a total of approximately 2,5 billion dollars. In addition, the leaders discussed in Moscow joint economic activities in the southern Kuriles, which Japan claims, calling them its northern territories . The agreement on it was also reached in Tokyo.

However, the economic results of the just-held talks between Putin and Abe were very modest. During the visit, the Russian and Japanese representatives signed a set of new cooperation agreements in the field of agriculture, urban infrastructure, medicine, training and energy from 29. As in the case of the 80-th documents signed during the previous summit, a large proportion of them consisted of memorandums of understanding, agreements of intent and other little binding agreements. In addition, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry of Japan Hiroshige Sako (also known as the Minister of Economic Cooperation with Russia) agreed on a joint statement on the progress of cooperation in implementing the plan from the 8 points proposed in the past year by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

As for the joint economic activity in the four South Kuril Islands, then, as the voice of the Japanese business circles, 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 resolving Long-standing territorial dispute. The two leaders agreed to send the Japanese research team to the disputed islands at the southern tip of the Kuril ridge no later than May to explore possible joint economic projects.

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

As the same Nikkei writes, the 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 recently expressed his impatience for the hitch in the negotiations, which was marked since the previous summit in December. But further navigation, the newspaper notes, will not be smooth. Russia plans to hold presidential elections in March next year, and some forces in the country refuse to make any compromise on disputed islands. Further friction between Moscow and Washington over North Korea and Syria, according to the newspaper, can also put Japan in a difficult situation.

Indeed, along with bilateral relations, Putin and Abe paid much attention to the North Korean problem. As the largest Japanese newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun points out, the bilateral meeting between Abe and Putin took place in a tense situation in North Korea and Syria, as well as in the growing confrontation between the United States and Russia. The combination of conflicts in the international community casts a shadow over Russian-Japanese relations. According to Reuters, Putin and Abe called on North Korea and other countries to avoid actions or rhetoric that could increase tension around Pyongyang's nuclear program. Both leaders expressed their desire to see the resumption of the six-party talks with North Korea. And the Asahi Sibun 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 are also necessary to resolve a long-standing territorial dispute over the islands. The issue that can have a serious impact on bilateral relations 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 concluding a peace treaty. "

Thus, the difficult problems of bilateral relations between Russia and Japan, as well as the escalating situation in East Asia and other regions of the world, make further cooperation between Russia and Japan in various fields imperative. On this, James Brown, a professor at Temple University in Tokyo and an expert on Russian-Japanese relations, said in the Japan Times newspaper that “courting Putin” despite the displeasure of Washington and other Western capitals, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not only aims to get controversial islands, but also has certain strategic intentions. They are to help, with the help of Russia, to neutralize as far as possible the two main, according to Japanese politicians and experts, threats to Japan’s security today, from China’s increasing military power and naval activity, and improving North Korea’s nuclear missile potential.

On the occasion of the April summit, the expert writes: "The last summit in Moscow ended with Abe expressing his enthusiasm for seeing Putin again at the G-20 meeting in Hamburg in July. He also confirmed his promise to go to Vladivostok in September. The upcoming two meetings with Putin are unlikely to lead to a major breakthrough on the territorial issue, giving rise to even more doubts about Abe's seemingly strange obsession with the Russian leader. Nevertheless, the unilateral male friendship of Abe 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 postwar period, Tokyo is forced to coordinate its policy towards Moscow with its main and only military-political ally, the United States. So, according to the Asahi Shimbun newspaper, 1 May, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had an 30-minute telephone conversation with US President Donald Trump. The details of the conversation were not disclosed, but according to the newspaper, in the center of the dialogue were the results of Abe's visit to Moscow in April, as well as the coordination of the policies of the two allies with regard to the DPRK. As the newspaper writes, it's no secret that Abe and Trump also talked on the phone before the trip of the Japanese prime minister to Moscow.

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