Opinion / Cai Hong

Abe can hardly please both the US and Russia

By Cai Hong (China Daily) Updated: 2016-12-19 07:34

Many issues in Japan's foreign policy are legacies of World War II. However, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has seemed determined to try and settle two of them in the last month of this year.

One of them is the row over four islets seized by the Soviet Union in the closing days of the war. Abe treated Russian President Vladimir Putin to a visit to hot springs in his ancestral hometown of Nagato in Yamaguchi prefecture on Thursday in the hope that a close personal relationship will help him make a breakthrough. The territorial dispute has stood in the way of a peace treaty between the two countries since the end of the war.

His onsen diplomacy, however, did not move Putin to concede the isles, known as Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia. Putin walked away with deals on economic cooperation, including Japan's consent to starting talks on joint projects on the disputed islands under a "special framework". Still, Putin has insisted that joint economic activities on the four isles be done under Russia's sovereignty.

Tough negotiations lie ahead for Japan.

The second concerns Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Abe will join US President Barack Obama in Hawaii on Dec 26 and 27 for "reconciliation", although without offering an apology.

The past several years have seen Abe's foreign policy chasing the "two rabbits" of the United States and Russia.

Abe has showed unprecedented support for the Japan-US alliance. The two countries revised their defense guidelines in 2015. Japan's security legislation, which allows the country's Self-Defense Forces to fight in aid of friendly countries that come under attack if Japan's security is also threatened, took effect in March.

The US has welcomed the biggest change in Japan's defense policy since the creation of its Self-Defense Forces in 1954. And the Abe administration is mulling the deployment of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-ballistic missile system in Japan.

Also, Abe has wooed Putin with geostrategic and economic interests as well as the territorial issue in mind. He went to Moscow in April 2013 accompanied by a large business delegation. He attended the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 despite calls for a boycott from his Western counterparts.

And he pitched to Putin an eight-point economic cooperation proposal in Sochi in May, rejecting an appeal by Obama not to go to Russia. The G7 nations imposed sanctions on Russia for its takeover of Crimea in 2014. But Abe visited Vladivostok in September with a concrete plan to pour Japanese money into critical sectors in the Russian Far East, in the hopes of accelerating rapprochement with Moscow.

Walking a tightrope between the US and Russia is more easily thought than done, however, especially as the relationship between Putin and Obama is badly strained.

To what extent Obama's successor as US president Donald Trump will keep his predecessors' commitment to the US-Japan alliance remains unclear. That Abe was the first foreign leader to meet with the US president-elect indicates Japan's unease.

In spite of the economic cooperation between the two countries, distrust runs deep between Russia and Japan. In an interview with Japanese media before his Japan visit, Putin blamed Tokyo's sanctions against Russia for shattering trust. Russia has deployed missiles on two of the four disputed islands, which Japan called "deplorable".

With Trump vowing to reset the relations with Russia, Abe may have more room to pursue rapprochement with Putin for return of the four islands. But with the Trump administration, Russia may play a bigger role on the world stage, shifting away from Japan.

The author is China Daily Tokyo bureau chief. caihong@chinadaily.com.cn

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