Making Japan Great Again?

Main Image Credit Japan's Shinzo Abe meets Russian President Vladimir Putin at a Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Lima, Peru, in November 2016. Courtesy

A Japanese-Russian summit in December produced no appreciable results. Just what Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted, although not what the Japanese government expected.

The Japanese government bent over backwards in December to make its summit with Russia a success. When Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Japan just before the Christmas holidays, he was met by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his hometown parliamentary constituency, Nagato in the Yamaguchi 4th district, a mark of great respect.

However, although Japan entertained high hopes from this meeting about a possible settlement of the territorial dispute between the two nations, the summit highlighted instead the limits of economic diplomacy in the face of nationalist sentiment in both countries. Changing power calculations wrought by the election of Donald Trump as the next US president also came to the fore.

Expectations about the summit appear to have been misaligned from the start. On the one hand, the Russian press wrote about the event as an exercise in diplomatic gradualism – promoting co-operation and economic ties and building a context for the eventual improvement of relations. On the other, Japanese commentators appeared to regard the summit as a key step in creating a lasting bond between great powers.

Russia and Japan have still not concluded a treaty formally ending Second World War hostilities and, as elsewhere in East Asia, collaboration risks floundering upon disputed islands.

Lying between Hokkaido in the south and Kamchatka in the north, the Kuril Islands were annexed by the Soviet Union in 1945; the Japanese claim sovereignty over the Southern Kurils and seek their return.

Prior to the summit, Abe promised expelled former residents of the Kurils that he was determined ‘to put an end to the territorial issue within my generation’. Abe has a famously strong bond with Putin, conducting long private meetings with the Russian President, often with only the company of their interpreters.

Unsurprisingly, there were hopes that he could use this bond with a Russian leader who is unchallenged at home in order to strike a territorial compromise. Russia’s need for international support in the face of economic sanctions was also supposed to boost Japan’s negotiating position.

Excitement at the potential of the meeting was widespread among Japan analysts, with one referring to this ‘exceptional’ summit as a ‘very major event’ with a potential ‘historical impact’.

Yet all this excitement for a territorial settlement was overwrought, for such an outcome was intrinsically unlikely. Putin’s domestic legitimacy is based upon his maintenance of national strength; returning any islands to Japan would run counter to the basis of his authority, while any larger return of territory has been seen by Russian military high command as a naval strategic risk.

Japanese attempts in the early 1990s to swap sovereignty for economic aid were a failure; now, with Russia in a less weak position, it is remarkable that such hopes where again entertained.

Indeed, prior to the conference, Putin made the Russian position clear, telling Japanese reporters, ‘We believe we have no territorial problems at all. It is only Japan that believes it has territorial problems with Russia. We are ready to talk about this’.

More broadly, expectations that the summit could mark the existence of a ‘normalised Japan’ – a Japan conducting an increasingly independent foreign policy, forming major strategic ties beyond its primary relationship with the US and moving away from its pacifist constitution – were entirely unrealistic.

For despite what some may see as the ‘revisionist’ aims of the current Japanese leadership, the relationship with the US remains the central pillar of Japanese security. Indeed, Abe seems all too well aware of this fact: having effectively backed Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, he was the first of world leaders to visit Trump in the wake of his victory, meeting the President-elect, his daughter and son-in-law in the golden opulence of the Trump Tower well before any other world leader decided on how to react to the unexpected outcome of the elections.

Japan had ignored US concerns in the run up to the Putin-Abe summit, seeing engagement as more important than maintaining the G7 policy consensus on isolating Russia. However, this did not look as a major gamble as long as Clinton remained the leading US presidential candidate, for she was a known and predictable factor.

Yet in the face of a man whose protean rhetoric is constant only in its isolationism, Japan cannot now afford to tack too far from its patron.

By generating high expectations of the summit yet gaining only promises of economic co-operation, Abe merely exposed himself to domestic criticism from both right and left. Under the renewed nationalist narrative of recent years – an example of which is the 2008 directive to Japanese educators requiring them teach that Japan has sovereignty over the Southern Kurils – such criticism is damaging.

In the words of Professor Gilbert Rozman of Princeton University, slogan of ‘making America great again’ serves conveniently to validate obsessions with making Russia great again and for recovering Japan’s honour as it finds a path to validate Abe’s aim for a ‘normal Japan’. The snag for Abe is that, in this case, the Russian and Japanese narratives remain diametrically opposed.

Be that as it may, as far as East Asian geopolitics are concerned, all eyes must now turn to the US, that ailing hegemon and guarantor of the global order which now awaits the accession of a man apparently committed to diminishing America’s footprint in the region.

Trump’s election seems to have cooled what little ardour the Russians may have had for anything other than the most gradualist of outcomes in respect of improving their relations with Japan; Moscow now has every reason to expect it will face less international isolation. However, conversely, Abe has expended political capital for little appreciable gain. 

James Kingston is a British barrister and independent political analyst.


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