The Cable

Putin and Abe Are Hoping to Forge Closer Russia-Japan Ties

Why is Putin turning toward Tokyo?


Russia and Japan have been courting closer ties, hoping to solve a nettlesome territorial dispute, end World War II, and deepen economic ties between Moscow and Tokyo. Next week, President Vladimir Putin will meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make the courtship a bit more formal.

Putin has been serenading Tokyo from afar. In his annual address to the Russian Duma on Dec. 1, Putin said that he wanted better relations with Japan, with which it was looking to develop economic ties and develop energy resources in Russia’s Far East. And Japan is not playing hard to get: Abe has explicitly said that Russia should see Japan — and not just China — as Moscow’s gateway to Asia.

At first blush, closer ties between Japan, the principal U.S. ally in Asia, and Russia, which has steadily been moving closer to China, seem jarring. Relations between the two have been strained to different degrees since the final days of the Second World War, when the Soviet Union grabbed some of Japan’s most northerly islands and kept them.

But China’s rise as an economic and military powerhouse, and especially its newly-aggressive attitude in Asia, is prompting a reshuffle of some old geopolitical alignments.

“It’s about maneuvering and trying to maintain a balance,” said Michael Auslin, director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “Moscow and Tokyo are worried about Beijing, even though Putin and [Chinese president] Xi Jinping have a close relationship.”

Russia, for its part, looks askance at the threat posed by China’s huge population on the doorstep of its resource-rich but empty Far East. Japan, meanwhile, has warily watched China’s assertive approach to Asian disputes, from the South China Sea to the spat over rocks in the East China Sea.

“Russia is seen as a useful partner for Japan and vice versa in relation to China, and then when things get too cozy on either side, particularly Russia will always switch back to China,” Auslin said.

And Russia, which is eager to develop its Siberian energy resources and find ready buyers, sees Japan as a natural hedge against too much reliance on the Chinese market. In 2014, after a decade of talks, Russia and China signed a mammoth natural-gas export deal. But China drove a hard bargain on price, and has not moved quickly to pour investment capital into Russian projects. Japan, too, needs energy imports and could help Russia develop its buried riches.

“Russia wants to avoid becoming a ‘junior partner’ to China and be over-dependent on it, so Putin is keep to deepen ties with Japan, too,” said Celine Pajon, a research fellow at the Institut Francais des Relations Internationales

The geopolitical dance between Russia and Japan also comes just as the United States appears to be on the verge of re-writing big chunks of its foreign-policy dogma. President-elect Donald Trump repeatedly bashed Japan on the campaign trail, dismissed the defense treaty between the two countries, and helped scupper the Trans Pacific Partnership, a huge Asian trade pact. Meanwhile, Trump has sought closer and friendlier relations with Moscow, with whom he’s pledged to work to combat terrorist groups like Islamic State.

The Putin-Abe meeting will be hard-pressed to resolve all the irritants between them. Despite hopes for a full-scale rapprochement, Russia is loath to return any of the Kuril Islands — known as the “Northern Territories” in Japan — that it has occupied since 1945, and recently has even made moves to upgrade defenses on the tiny outposts.

Japan recently put forth a new proposal, in which Japan would offer Russia financial assistance and investment in exchange for the return of at least two of the islands. But proponents shouldn’t hold their breath. On Saturday, speaking with his Japanese counterpart in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, “It’s not easy to bridge the gap in the principal positions of both sides, the problem is difficult,” which means the peace treaty between Russia and Japan is still unlikely to be finalized.

Lavrov pressed ahead and suggested economic development might not have to wait a solution to the territorial dispute. That reportedly includes an $880 billion fund to promote economic cooperation and development in Russia’s Far East, including investment in medical technologies and urban development. Further, Japanese banks are apparently consider a deal in which they would provide Russian gas giant Gazprom with 800 million euros worth of financing.

Japan’s willingness to seek closer ties with Russia, whether to balance against China or meet its own economic needs, could offer a path forward for the United States, Auslin said. U.S. diplomats and policymakers are so obsessed by Russia’s trouble-making role in Europe, he said, that they don’t realize Russia shares plenty of U.S. goals in Asia, from safeguarding freedom of navigation, to containing a nuclear North Korea, to helping balance against a mightier China.

“The problem with Washington, is that we’re really unable to divorce Russia policy from Europe,” Auslin said. “We should be looking for opportunities for new types of cooperation in Asia.”

Photo credit: Alexander Vilf/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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