Abe can hardly please both the US and Rus­sia

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

Many is­sues in Ja­pan’s for­eign pol­icy are lega­cies of World War II. How­ever, Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe has seemed de­ter­mined to try and set­tle two of them in the last month of this year. One of them is the row over four islets seized by the Soviet Union in the clos­ing days of the war. Abe treated Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin to a visit to hot springs in his an­ces­tral home­town of Na­gato in Ya­m­aguchi pre­fec­ture on Thurs­day in the hope that a close per­sonal re­la­tion­ship will help him make a break­through. The ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute has stood in the way of a peace treaty be­tween the two coun­tries since the end of the war.

His on­sen diplomacy, how­ever, did not move Putin to con­cede the isles, known as North­ern Ter­ri­to­ries in Ja­pan and the South­ern Kurils in Rus­sia. Putin walked away with deals on eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing Ja­pan’s con­sent to start­ing talks on joint projects on the dis­puted is­lands un­der a “spe­cial frame­work”. Still, Putin has in­sisted that joint eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties on the four isles be done un­der Rus­sia’s sovereignty. Tough ne­go­ti­a­tions lie ahead for Ja­pan. The sec­ond con­cerns Ja­pan’s sneak at­tack on Pearl Har­bor in 1941. Abe will join US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama in Hawaii on Dec 26 and 27 for “rec­on­cil­i­a­tion”, al­though with­out of­fer­ing an apol­ogy.

The past sev­eral years have seen Abe’s for­eign pol­icy chas­ing the “two rab­bits” of the United States and Rus­sia.

Abe has showed un­prece­dented sup­port for the Ja­pan-US al­liance. The two coun­tries re­vised their de­fense guide­lines in 2015. Ja­pan’s se­cu­rity leg­is­la­tion, which al­lows the coun­try’s Self-De­fense Forces to fight in aid of friendly coun­tries that come un­der at­tack if Ja­pan’s se­cu­rity is also threat­ened, took ef­fect in March.

The US has wel­comed the big­gest change in Ja­pan’s de­fense pol­icy since the cre­ation of its Self-De­fense Forces in 1954. And the Abe ad­min­is­tra­tion is mulling the de­ploy­ment of the US Ter­mi­nal High Alti­tude Area De­fense anti-bal­lis­tic mis­sile sys­tem in Ja­pan.

Also, Abe has wooed Putin with geostrate­gic and eco­nomic in­ter­ests as well as the ter­ri­to­rial is­sue in mind. He went to Moscow in April 2013 ac­com­pa­nied by a large busi­ness del­e­ga­tion. He at­tended the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Sochi Win­ter Olympics in 2014 de­spite calls for a boy­cott from his Western coun­ter­parts.

And he pitched to Putin an eight-point eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion pro­posal in Sochi in May, re­ject­ing an ap­peal by Obama not to go to Rus­sia. The G7 na­tions im­posed sanc­tions on Rus­sia for its takeover of Crimea in 2014. But Abe vis­ited Vladi­vos­tok in Septem­ber with a con­crete plan to pour Ja­panese money into crit­i­cal sec­tors in the Rus­sian Far East, in the hopes of ac­cel­er­at­ing rap­proche­ment with Moscow.

Walk­ing a tightrope be­tween the US and Rus­sia is more eas­ily thought than done, how­ever, es­pe­cially as the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Putin and Obama is badly strained.

To what ex­tent Obama’s suc­ces­sor as US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump will keep his pre­de­ces­sors’ com­mit­ment to the US-Ja­pan al­liance re­mains un­clear. That Abe was the first for­eign leader to meet with the US pres­i­dent-elect in­di­cates Ja­pan’s un­ease.

In spite of the eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion be­tween the two coun­tries, dis­trust runs deep be­tween Rus­sia and Ja­pan. In an in­ter­view with Ja­panese me­dia be­fore his Ja­pan visit, Putin blamed Tokyo’s sanc­tions against Rus­sia for shat­ter­ing trust. Rus­sia has de­ployed mis­siles on two of the four dis­puted is­lands, which Ja­pan called “de­plorable”.

With Trump vow­ing to re­set the re­la­tions with Rus­sia, Abe may have more room to pur­sue rap­proche­ment with Putin for re­turn of the four is­lands. But with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, Rus­sia may play a big­ger role on the world stage, shift­ing away from Ja­pan.

The author is China Daily Tokyo bureau chief. cai­hong@chi­nadaily.com .cn

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