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16.05.2013 г.

Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Russia

May 15th, 2013

Author: Dmitri Streltsov, MGIMO University

On 29–30 April 2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid a visit to Moscow.

It was the first official visit of a Japanese prime minister to Russia since Junichiro Koizumi’s trip to Moscow in January 2003. In many ways, the recent summit can be seen as not just an important meeting but even as a landmark event in the history of Russo–Japanese relations.

Changes in the international political environment in Northeast Asia over the last year have proved to be beneficial for relations between the two countries. Against the backdrop of rising tension on the Korean peninsula, Russia and Japan came to a mutual understanding of the need to strengthen the political component of their relationship. The growing threat of military conflict arouses great concern not only in Japan, for which North Korea has become a sort of a geopolitical ‘bugbear’, but also in Russia, which shares a land border with North Korea.

Sharpening territorial spats in the South and East China Seas are also contributing to the general trend. Although these disputes do not directly affect Russia, Moscow does not want territorial issues to spiral into an open armed conflict. Emphasising its neutrality toward territorial problems, Moscow has shown interest in setting up an international dialogue in Northeast Asia for the purpose of discussing issues of military security. So Moscow needs to retain Tokyo as an ally in order to achieve this strategic goal.

As for Japan, against the backdrop of worsening territorial disputes with China and South Korea, it needs stability and predictability with Russia around the issue of the territorial demarcation of the Kuril Islands. In comparison to other partners in Japan’s territorial disputes, Russia plays the role of a ‘good cop’, helping Tokyo to overcome the complex of being a surrounded fortress. Political stabilisation in both Russia and Japan has created a climate in which their relationship can improve. Election fever has given way to a period of relative peace in domestic politics. There is now an opportunity for both countries to re-evaluate the position of the partner state in its national priorities and to determine how best to engage with each other strategically.

The visit was also vital for strengthening personal ties between the leaders of the two countries. Historical experience shows that personal diplomacy is an important factor in the foreign policies of both Russia and Japan. On the verge of the upper house elections, the Japanese Prime Minister Abe badly needed to turn his visit to Moscow into a success story. So he sought to use the summit meeting with Vladimir Putin to boost his image with the voters at home — in the eyes of the Japanese he was to become a sort of ‘conciliator’, in contrast to his Democratic Party predecessors who had managed to ‘spoil’ Japan’s relations with almost all its neighbours.

As far as Putin is concerned, the summit can be seen as a part of Russia’s strategy of diplomatic and economic rebalancing towards Asia. Putin’s era of successful personal diplomacy in the 2000s is over, so setting up a personal bridge with the Japanese leader will also further his confidence in handling diplomatic matters.

Apart from image-making, each of the parties pursued their specific goals. For Russia, it was the discussion about cooperation in the gas sector. Moscow is in need for technical and financial support for a number of investment projects in the gas sector with a total value of almost US$40 billion, including the development of the gas fields in Yakutia and the Irkutsk region, the construction of a 3200 kilometre-long gas pipeline from Eastern Siberia to Vladivostok, and the construction of a liquefied natural gas plant near Vladivostok. Russia is also interested in Japanese investment in other spheres including urban planning, the automobile industry, agriculture, ecology and medicine.

On the other side, Japan is interested in pushing forward in the negotiations on the peace treaty. It is noteworthy that before the visit the Russian side had signalled its readiness to resume talks on the issue. They implied it was not just a primitive transaction of ‘gas in exchange for territory’ but a voluntary decision aimed at establishing a political environment in which economic cooperation should gain new momentum. During the summit, the leaders agreed to order their foreign ministries to ‘accelerate talks in order to find a mutually acceptable decision’.

It is clear that the visit was ‘doomed to succeed’. Japan and Russia have experienced the benefits of relatively good mutual relations in the past. Yet in the past three years, they were able see how a less-than-successful relationship negatively affected their own national interests. Hopefully, the potential of the new bilateral relationship created by the official visit will be realised soon.

Dmitri Streltsov is Head of the Department of Asian and African Studies, MGIMO University, Moscow.

This is an abridged version of an article which appeared here in Russia Beyond the Headlines.

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