Japan tests West’s boycott of Russia

The Russian diplomacy got a big boost on Wednesday when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a phone call to President Vladimir Putin. Abe took the initiative a day after Tokyo had sent out a cryptic signal that Russia’s participation in next year’s G7 summit (May 26-27), which Japan is hosting, “is undecided yet.”

Abe has strong reasons to pick up the threads of Japan’s bilateral ties with Russia

Abe has strong reasons to pick up the threads of Japan’s bilateral ties with Russia which suffered after Tokyo closed ranks with the West

The Kremlin readout said the two leaders “expressed their mutual desire to develop political, economic, humanitarian, and security cooperation”. They resolved to “prepare thoroughly” for a visit by Putin to Japan.

Abe has strong reasons to pick up the threads of Japan’s bilateral ties with Russia, which suffered through the past year after Tokyo closed ranks with the West and imposed sanctions against Russia. The fact of the matter is that as the Asia-Pacific is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Japan is the odd man out, still without a peace treaty with Russia.

Tokyo had pinned hopes on Putin’s leadership to resolve the dispute over the Kurile Islands, which are under Russian occupation and is a hugely emotive issue for the Japanese public. Japan has held out the promise that the resolution of the island dispute could unlock Japanese investments for Russia’s Far East and Siberia, which Moscow has been eagerly seeking.

Meanwhile, what makes Tokyo particularly uneasy is the acceleration of the Sino-Russian entente in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing is closer than ever in securing Moscow’s support for its “core interests” in the Asia-Pacific. The two countries have pledged to be supportive of each other’s core interests and to coordinate their foreign policies.

Abe estimates that the Russian DNA may prefer the country to play the role of a “balancer” in the Asia-Pacific between China and the US, a role that Moscow pundits have expounded in the past as ideally suiting their country’s interests and its European identity – that is, until Ukraine erupted and the West turned on Russia.

Abe is making a determined pitch to nudge Russia back to the middle ground even as the countdown begins for yet another visit by Putin to China (to attend the victory celebrations, including a grand parade that Beijing is planning for September), which would in all probability hoist the Sino-Russian entente to newer heights.

Abe tried hard at the G7 meeting last month in Germany to impress upon his western colleagues that it is the South China Sea that should engage priority attention – and not Russia and Ukraine. However, the US and the European members of the G7 forum made some perfunctory noises about China’s land reclamation work in the South China Sea (without naming China, of course), but failed to meet Abe’s expectation to unite the G7 to apply pressure on China.

Abe’s anxieties over the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank were plainly ignored by Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Canada, which have joined the planned China-led bank.

Interestingly, however, Abe also tried at the G7 summit to leave room for dialogue with Russia. Thus, the phone call to Putin on Tuesday did have a backdrop. Moscow might even have expected Abe’s phone call.

Indeed, it is only logical if Tokyo began wondering why it should stick out its neck and continue to let the ties with Russia drift on account of the conflict in Ukraine, whereas the West is in no mood to wade into the South China Sea or show any desire to confront China.

Abe’s phone call to Putin does not hint at any imminent rethink in the West regarding sanctions against Russia. But then, Japan’s patience is running out. It has specific issues to address in its relations with Russia.

The Sino-Russian entente does not worry the US. But the bottom line for Tokyo is that the balance of forces involving Russia is incrementally shifting in China’s favor and it hurts Japanese interests.

Suffice it to say, Abe understands that it is in Japan’s interests to offer a countervailing relationship that restores the balance in Russia’s Asia-Pacific policies.

From the Russian viewpoint, it all depends on what Japan has to offer. An upgrade of ties with Japan at this point means, in principle, an erosion of the US’ containment strategy against Russia. But on the other hand, Japan is welcoming the deployment of the US anti-missile system on its territories, which aim at Russia (as much as China).

To be sure, Russia’s hands get strengthened vis-à-vis China if Japan offers a substantial relationship. Russia needs all the technology and capital that Japan can commit in its economy.  But the dispute over the islands cannot easily lend to a solution.

In April, Russia conducted military anti-landing drills in the island chain as part of coastal defence from possible sea or air attacks. As recently as a fortnight ago, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow plans to accelerate building work on civilian and military infrastructure on the islands. Clearly, Russia has no illusions about the centrality of Japan’s military alliance with the US in Tokyo’s policies.

Nonetheless, Abe is pressing hard, given the belief in Tokyo that if any Russian leader can draw the curtain down on the island dispute and purposively launch the Russian-Japanese strategic partnership, it is only Putin who can.

The Japanese reports mentioned that Abe is deputing the National Security Council chief Shotaro Yachi to visit Moscow in early July. Japan is eager to send Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida to Russia this fall. These visits may lay the groundwork for a Putin visit to Japan.

(Copyright 2015 Asia Times Holdings Limited, a duly registered Hong Kong company. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


Categories: Asia Times News & Features, AT Top Writers, M.K. Bhadrakumar

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    One of the issues that stand out in this article is geography. That is an aspect that is often understated. One of the reasons why the Sino/Russian alliance is such a success is that the geography between these two nations is connected. No oceans or continents separate them, no major geographical aspects stand in their way.
    The same can be said of these islands that are integral to Japan and are held by Russia. Simply looking at the expanding alliance of Russia and China into Pakistan,and from there, into Iran, to Russia expanding her oil pipelines east into China and west into Europe, while China does the same with her silk routes is the geographical aspect of Eurasia and even Africa.

  • Born_In_Borneo

    I would be very surprised if the phycology of Japan has not been widely analyzed in the West and Russia — and especially in China. There was a time when Japan was way, way ahead of every Asian country. Japan is the only — and the last, I dare add — Asian country in the fabulous G7 club. Japan became the model for many Asian countries. Historically, “Look East” meant “looking to and learning from Japan”.

    Now, Japan is seeing the glory of being the most important country in Asia fade away as China continues to rise.

    Unlike China’s other neighbor countries, Japan has been regarded as “unique” by many Chinese. Sometime, Japan is also being ridiculed by some Chinese as an “abnormal” country. Here, I would just list a few examples that “caused” the Chinese to have a “unique” view of Japan.

    1) Japan is the only G7 country that refused to adopt the “multi-cultural/multi-racial” view of society that became popular in nearly all the advanced Western countries in the 1980s. Instead, Japan doubled down with a “Nihonjinron”.

    2) Right after the Second World War, it was right — and clever — for Germany to differentiate and to contrast two groups of “Germans”. The phrase “Nazi Germans” means the “bad Germans” and it has been consistently and persistently used in describing Germany during the Second World War. Today, no Germans can even think about honoring the “Nazi Germans”. But this is not the case in Japan. In fact, the Yasukuni Shrine is proudly “Japanese”. The shrine is one aspect of the “Nihonjinron”. I can even imagine Japan tells China: Our worshipping in the Yasukuni Shrine has nothing to do with Chinese or any other non-Japanese who died during the Second World War, we worship because it is about our “Nihonjinron”. If you like, we will show you and teach you about “Nihonjinron”. But please don’t demand more apology from us with a squeal every time we practice our unique “Nihonjinron” by going to the shrine.

    3) After Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Japan quickly came up with its own Asia Infrastructure Plan (AIP). Japan wants its AIP to outshine AIIB and to counter China in Asia geopolitics.

    4) The EU and America sees Ukraine, which borders some NATO countries, as a potential NATO member since a large part of Ukraine has proclaimed its desire to be a member of the EU. Thus, there is an immediate EU’s — and Russia’s — interests in Ukraine. But what is Japan’s immediate interests in the South China Sea disputes? In fact, Japan’s immediate interests in in the Kurile Islands dispute with Russia. Why did Japan audaciously ask the other countries of G7 to step into the South China Sea “to help Japan” but kept mum about the Kurile dispute?

    5) If Japan, America’s staunchest ally in East Asia, actually believe that it’s warmer relationship with Russia will strengthen Russia’s hands in dealing with China (with the result of giving Japan more geopolitical advantage) or to cause a “crack” in Sino-Russian relationship, then either Japan and/or Russia is/are very naive. Japan can never ever replace China as a working partner with Russia to ensure that all the Central Asia “stans” enjoy tight economic progress and harmonious integration. It has nothing to do with the fact that Japan is a bosom U.S. ally in East Asia. It’s all about size and geography.

    That last point brings us to India.

    I also do not think that India would want to be truly helping Japan in countering/fighting China because this means more interests/gains for Japan. But more important than that, Modi wants a “Make in India”.

    If Modi really wants “Make in India” to be as successful, if not more successful, as “Make in China”, then Modi knows — and China knows — that India must have relatively peaceful surroundings. Therefore, a peaceful Central Asia is important to India. So, India wants to be a member of the SCO. Also, a successful “Make in India” means that India must not get sucked into a prolonged “foreign” war. And a war with China is likely a prolonged war, if China regards it as protecting its utmost national interests.

  • teddyfromcd

    WORLD-CLASS commentary!

  • teddyfromcd

    another BRILLIANT observation!

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    Geography is one of the main reasons Islam in Indonesia is one of the most tolerant. Geography makes Indonesia a nation of 13 thousand islands. Bali the Hindu island is separated by oceans of water. so is Java and Sumatra. Now Indonesia is showing a fundamental Islam because other technology has overcome the barriers of a nation of islands. now Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities in Indonesia are feeling the “heat” of Islam.

  • teddyfromcd

    Thank you for educating me .

    this just made me recall my university of the philippines days in the college of music so many years ago —

    one of the elective courses i decided to take for 2 semesters — so that i could at least have ‘asian music’ in my experience (since the college was about western classical music training) –

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    Hey, you are welcome. leave you with this thought. being mindful of a subject and looking at it from all its facets, even if some of them work against your own interests helps to understand. take a dispassionate approach and it has helped me grasp what little I can from such a complex world.

  • Dominion

    I don’t think Russia should rejoin the G7. Russians must remember how the G7 countries treated Putin at the G20 meeting in Australia. Rejoining G7 would the the gravest mistake for Russia. It would be the ball again and not the players. They can ask Russia to leave as they pleased. There is nothing in the G7 that really benefits Russia.

    In fact, Russia has more say (if not lead) in the groupings like BRICS, SCO or AIIB. Within G7, Russia is nothing. By apply sanctions on Russia, Japan and the West is hoping that Russia would broke, and Japan would pounce on the Kurile Islands. They never thought that China would through Russia a life line and keep Russia in one piece.

    Japan’s plan is to have the Kurile Islands under its control. Once Russia looses these islands it will no longer has any bargaining chips.

    Japan is a country will never be at peace if it does not change its foreign policies. It has territory dispute with all of its immediate neighbouring countries – China, Russia and South Korea. North Korea does not have territory dispute with Japan but it does not fear Japan.

  • China Lee

    The IMF April WEO (ie. World Economic Outlook), the 2015 GDP projections are as follows.

    1. China: $11.2 trillion
    2. Japan: $4.2 trillion
    3. Russia: $1.2 trillion

    Since the Chinese economy is $7 trillion larger than Japan’s, why would Putin even bother visiting little Japan?

  • philippinefailblog.com

    LoL … straight to the point.

  • observer

    @Bernard Wijeyasingha
    ” Geography is one of the main reasons Islam in Indonesia is one of the most tolerant.”

    Not sure what is your point in bringing up “Islam” in this discussion except being pushed by your total ignorance about other Muslim countries from Morocco to the Causasus, and maybe your blind hate of the ‘unknown’. You need to travel physically around the world before coming up with offending nonsense? You seem to be also ignorant about Geography too, when was the last time you checked the world map? Can you find the location of Morocco, Spain, Italy and France, if yes, can you talk a hard look at the geography?
    I am French who happens to live about 3 hours flight from multiple Muslim countries and which I have visited most of them these last 25 years. As a European of French descent I feel that for centuries France has been closer to North African countries (all of them Muslims) than to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and what have you. You need to educate yourself and stop being brainwashed by Islamophobic mass media.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    What stands out about your comment is that it is ignorant, arrogant, angry and insulting. You have achieved on all counts

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    BTW Observer
    I have lived in every nation in the world. I have many PhD’s and have won the Nobel Prize in so many fields. I speak hundreds of languages and my IQ is beyond the level of genius. so you see I do know more than your provincial snotty French world. go eat some snails

  • mulga mumblebrain

    Talk to anyone willing, break down tension, look for peaceful solutions. Not everyone thinks like a Western bully-boy.

  • mulga mumblebrain

    The Kuriles are not ‘integral’ to Japan, and neither are the Ryukyus.

  • observer

    WOW!!!, double WOW. Nobel Prize and with multiple PHd’s who speaks like a sailor? Internet search for Nobel Prize Bernard Wijeyasingha returned 10000 sites with 10000 articles about you and your ‘prizes’. Checked Wikipedia and found articles about you and your ‘amazing achievements’ in every language that you ‘speak’ including Esperanto, amazing!!!. You are not making me walk, you are making me run. Continue displaying your amazing ‘education and prizes’ You are an interesting creature.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    I did not know about them till I read an article in the Asia Times. At this stage I will agree with you.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    thank you, I am glad you noticed and gave as much regard to my claim to fame as I have given to yours.

  • Northern Light

    A bit late, but yes, I agree with Teddy — a most edifying comment to be sure. Thank you Born_In_Borneo. You have helped me to a much better understanding of a very complex subject that is often used to malign many Japanese who dare stray from the path set for them by the occupational forces.

    BTW, hiya Teddy.

  • James Jerome

    Dominion you hit the nail on the head. Russia is better off not rejoining them. Japan will only have a chance to get Island’s back when no US bases are on Japanese soil, and no US missile systems are installed. Which means they may never ever get those Islands back.

  • Fernando Martinez


  • smukster

    But actually I think there’s a much simpler answer to many of these questions: No major country would like to put all its apples in one basket, and especially not one that’s falling apart as we speak.
    And while you’re right that Japan has little immediate interest in the SSC, it does have quite strong indirect interests – just as NATO has in Ukraine, a bankrupt country that would cause huge trouble if the western alliance really tried to integrate it in its sphere.

  • George Silversurfer

    If there were any talk of Russia readmittance to G whatever, it would have been delivered by recent visit of Kerry to Moscow as part of Washington’s focus on China containment. Abe is under the illusion that Japan has a independent foreign policy just because US removed its muzzle to bark at China. The alliance leash is still secured and tight.