Skip to main content
analysis

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept. 3.ALEXEI DRUZHININ/AFP / Getty Images

The last time a Japanese leader got this close to his Russian counterpart, it did not end well. Four years after the two countries signed a non-aggression pact in 1941, Stalin declared war on Japan, seized four islands off its northern coast and expelled their Japanese residents.

Almost every Japanese leader since then has vowed to get the islands back, in order to restore the country's wounded pride, allow aged former island residents to return to their homes and regain access to the area's rich fishery. But none has wagered as much personal political capital in this effort, or so risked the ire of Washington by cozying up to Russia, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Unfortunately for Mr. Abe, it looks set to become a bet he loses, constituting a rare setback for a leader who has dominated Japanese politics like no recent prime minister before him.

Mr. Abe had hoped to make this week's summit meeting in Japan with Russian President Vladimir Putin a moment of triumph that would serve as the launching pad for a snap Japanese election. Instead, hopes for a breakthrough in the territorial dispute have faded, likely because Mr. Putin no longer faces the prospect of hostile U.S. administration led by Hillary Clinton. As long as that was the case, Mr. Putin had more of an incentive to curry favour with Japan to counter Washington's cold shoulder.

"Mr. Putin has a much stronger hand than before largely as a result of the U.S. election," explains Yuichi Hosoya, a professor of international politics at Keio University in Tokyo. "Because of the election of Donald Trump … Russia no longer feels isolated. If Russia is isolated, it wants to get closer to Japan to break the international front against it."

Indeed, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration has taken a dim view of Mr. Abe's courtship of Moscow, which it sees as undermining the effectiveness of economic sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea. Mr. Abe has dangled the promise of Japanese investment and joint development of offshore oil and gas reserves to win concessions from Mr. Putin in the dispute over the islands, which are known in Japan as the Northern Territories.

The election of Mr. Trump, a businessman who sees foreign policy as a simple transactional exercise, may remove an impediment to closer Japan-Russia economic relations. But it also leaves Mr. Abe with less leverage over Mr. Putin on the territorial dispute.

Still, on the eve of Mr. Putin's Thursday arrival in Yamaguchi, Mr. Abe insisted he is not giving up.

"I'll do my best to take even just one step forward to resolve the issue of the Northern Territories," he said on Monday after meeting with the head of the association representing former residents of the islands. "I'll hold summit talks with a determination to put an end to this problem during my generation."

Domestic politics aside, Mr. Abe has other reasons for seeking a rapprochement with Russia. More than 70 years after Japan's Second World War surrender, the two countries have yet to sign a formal peace treaty. Resolving the territorial dispute would pave the way for one.

Mr. Abe is also eager to counter Russia's growing economic dependence on China, whose rising power in Asia-Pacific region is seen as a direct threat to Japan's security. Chinese state-owned banks recently lent $12.6-billion (U.S.) to fund a major liquefied natural gas project in the Russian Arctic, enabling Mr. Putin to skirt Western sanctions.

"According to Mr. Abe's thinking, too much dependence on China by Russia is counter to Japan's national interest," says Nobuo Shimotomai, an expert in Russo-Japanese relations at Tokyo's Hosei University. "So, he wants to divide the divide the Russia-China alliance."

Joint Japanese-Russian development of oil and gas reserves off Sakhalin, a Russian island between Japan and Siberia, would help Russia diversify its energy customer base and provide Japan with a new energy source to reduce its reliance on nuclear energy. The latter has become increasingly controversial in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima disaster.

More than 75 per cent of Japan's current oil imports pass through the South China Sea, where China has moved to establish a permanent air and maritime military presence. Japan fears China could exert control over maritime shipping routes in the area to cut off its supply of Persian Gulf oil. Hence, the strategic importance for Japan of securing an alternative supplier of crude.

Still, Mr. Putin has signalled that any joint energy ventures with Japan must be controlled by Russia, a demand that would make Japanese banks skittish about lending to such projects, given Russia's weak record on investor protection.

As a result, this week's summit, which wraps up Friday in Tokyo, may be coming several weeks too late for Mr. Abe. This time it is Mr. Putin, an accomplished judoka who routinely shows off his skill in the traditional Japanese combat sport, who seems poised to score a takedown.

Konrad Yakabuski is in Japan this month on a Foreign Press Center Japan fellowship.