Main Image Credit Yoshihide Suga during his first press conference as prime minister of Japan. Courtesy of kantei.co.jp/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0
After former Prime Minister Abe’s warm embrace of President Putin, Japan’s attitude towards Russia under his successor, Yoshihide Suga, has notably cooled.
Under Shinzo Abe, who was Japan’s longest serving prime minister before stepping down in September 2020, Japan stood out within the G7 for the friendliness of its policy towards Russia. Even after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, Abe continued to make regular trips to Russia and described President Vladimir Putin as someone who is ‘dear to me as a partner’. Also, despite the UK urging it to do so, Japan remained the only G7 country not to expel any Russian intelligence officers after the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal in Salisbury in March 2018.
Officially, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who served as Abe’s chief cabinet secretary, has left the major features of his predecessor’s foreign policy unchanged. A closer look, however, reveals that all the emphasis placed on Russia under Abe has evaporated.
While Abe accumulated 27 in-person meetings with Putin, Suga has held only one phone call with the Russian leader in nine months, and that was just a courtesy call in the days after Suga took power. One influential Diet member, who is known for his pro-Russian views, is rumoured to have tried to persuade Suga to use his visit to the G7 summit in Cornwall this week as an opportunity to stop off in Moscow. US President Joe Biden is doing something similar, by meeting with President Putin in Switzerland next week. Suga, however, demurred.
Additionally, negotiations over the Russian-held Southern Kuril Islands, which were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War and which Japan claims as its Northern Territories, are going nowhere, and Suga appears to be backing away from Abe’s willingness to settle for the return of just two of the four disputed islands. Furthermore, on 2 June the Japanese government issued a formal diplomatic protest to Moscow in response to what it claims was Russia’s ‘unacceptable’ seizure of a Japanese fishing boat, which Tokyo insists was operating within Japan’s own exclusive economic zone.
Why the Change?
Part of the explanation for this policy shift is the coronavirus pandemic. The Japanese government has been lamentably slow in the rollout of vaccinations and is now rushing to catch up. The current priority is to vaccinate all over-65s before the end of July, which is, not coincidentally, when the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to begin. These efforts to control the pandemic have consumed much of the Suga administration’s attention.
Another factor is that, unlike Abe, who saw himself as a skilled international statesman, Suga is a domestically focused politician. He lacked foreign-policy experience when taking the top job, and his administration’s priorities are all nationally focused, including digitalisation and a belated embrace of decarbonisation of the Japanese economy.
These two factors have meant that foreign policy in general has taken a back seat under Suga’s leadership. However, there are also more specific reasons that account for Suga’s more distant attitude towards Russia.
Firstly, Abe’s Russia policy was always closely associated with him as an individual, as well as with his executive secretary, Takaya Imai. It is often suggested that Abe viewed resolution of the territorial dispute with Russia, and the signing of an accompanying peace treaty, as the means of securing his legacy as prime minister. Abe was also seeking to fulfil the ambitions of his late father, Shintaro Abe, who, as foreign minister during the 1980s, had devoted himself to normalising relations with the Soviet Union.
Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) always disliked Abe’s Russia policy, seeing it as an abandonment of the principle that all four disputed islands are Japan’s sovereign territory and worrying that Abe’s closeness to Putin would foster suspicion among Japan’s G7 partners. However, as a strong prime minister, Abe, assisted by Imai – who was a product of the rival Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry – was able to ignore the grumbling of Japan’s diplomats. With Abe and his staff now gone, MOFA has been able to claw back control over Russia policy from the Kantei (the prime minister’s office).
Russia’s actions have also been a factor in Japan’s course correction. The Kremlin could not have wished for a more pro-Russian Japanese prime minister than Abe. Yet, instead of rewarding him for his promotion of political and economic ties, as well as his offer of concessions on the territorial dispute, Moscow pocketed the gains and hardened its stance.
The most painful slap in the face for Abe was an amendment to the Russian Constitution in July 2020, which included the introduction of a clause stating that ‘Actions ... directed towards the alienation of part of the territory of the Russian Federation, and also calls for such actions, are not allowed’. This effectively slammed the door on Abe’s hopes of regaining any of the disputed islands. Having seen his predecessor’s offers of friendship being taken as a sign of weakness and ruthlessly exploited by Moscow, it is no surprise that Suga is not rushing to make the same mistake again.
Lastly, the change in the US from the administration of Donald Trump to that of Joe Biden makes a difference too. Japanese governments are always hypersensitive to any negative comments from their main ally. While a fellow admirer of Vladimir Putin was US president, Abe could pursue his bromance with the Russian leader without fear of criticism from the US. However, this is more difficult now that the occupant of the White House recognises Putin as 'a killer’. Of course, the Japanese prime minister can still meet at a future date with the Russian leader, as Biden himself is doing on 16 June, although Abe’s style of chumminess – which extended to inviting Putin to his hometown and trying to give him a puppy – would now seem out of place.
From a Bad Policy to No Policy at All
For all these reasons, even if he is able to stay in office beyond the general election that is due by October 2021, Suga is unlikely to revive Abe’s controversial Russia policy. At the same time, we should not expect Japan to become actively hawkish on Russia.
It remains true that all Japanese governments continue to instinctively avoid confrontation in foreign policy, though a partial exception is Japan’s neuralgic relationship with South Korea. It is also the case that the promotion of human rights remains a low priority in Tokyo. This is demonstrated by Japan’s status as the only G7 member to lack Magnitsky-style legislation, which enables states to sanction foreign individuals who have committed human rights abuses.
Overall, while Abe’s extremely positive policy towards Russia has had its day, it is unlikely to be replaced by an active effort to push back against Moscow’s abuses both domestically and abroad. Instead, Abe’s failed effort to ingratiate himself with Putin looks set to be replaced by no real policy at all.
James D J Brown is an Associate Professor at Temple University’s Japan campus.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.