Japan sees an opportunity for a reset with Russia

09-Dec-2016 Intellasia | FT | 6:00 AM Print This Post

The west should welcome Tokyo’s engagement with Moscow, writes Yoichi Funabashi

During their November meeting in Trump Tower in New York, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and US president-elect Donald Trump found they had more in common than a penchant for golf. The details of their discussion remain confidential but it is known that Russia was one of the main topics on the agenda. Trump and Abe share a belief that they can strike important deals with Russian president Vladimir Putin.

In a phone call with Putin, Trump suggested he was ready to repair relations with Moscow. Meanwhile, Abe and the Russian leader have already established a rapport, meeting 15 times. They are due to see each other again in Abe’s home town on December 15. The willingness of the leaders of the world’s first and third-largest economies to embrace a hitherto isolated Moscow could signal a dramatic geopolitical realignment and redefine Russia’s role on the global stage.

Abe has touted a “new approach” to Russia based on deeper economic ties and energy cooperation. And, in light of China’s destabilising actions on maritime and cyber security, instability on the Korean peninsula and the need to diversify Japan’s energy mix, Tokyo sees Moscow as a responsible stakeholder in the east and a potential strategic partner.

Russia, too, has an incentive to seek a rapprochement. Despite its boldness on the international stage, its domestic problems are severe. Corruption is rife and the economy is in dire straits. As an energy producer heavily reliant on exports of oil and gas, Russia is suffering from falling commodity prices and needs foreign investment. The effects of low energy prices are exacerbated by western sanctions following the annexation of Crimea.

China has emerged as a convenient partner for Russia, and its banks are a source of energy investment. For example, this year the Yamal liquefied natural gas plant in the Russian Arctic received $12bn worth of loans from Chinese banks. But Russia is wary of becoming too reliant on investment from China, and in September the public financial institution Japan Bank of International Cooperation entered the fray by signing a memorandum of understanding to provide $200m to the Yamal project.

While Japan contemplates a strategic alignment with Moscow as a way of reining in China, in the west Russia is viewed very differently. In both the US and Europe, it is seen as a significant threat to the status quo. For this reason, Japanese entreaties to the Kremlin have not been welcomed in Washington, with President Barack Obama urging Abe not to visit Russia for a summit in May this year. The Japanese premier went anyway.

Tokyo, however, is aware that it cannot play the Russia card as part of its broader strategy towards China. Nor does it intend to break away from the sanctions regime operated by the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations. Moreover, its selective accommodation of Russia should not be seen as a zero-sum game that will lead to it severing ties with the west. Rather, by taking the initiative in this way, Japan is demonstrating its willingness to be more proactive in building order and security in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan’s engagement of Russia should therefore be welcomed by the west.

The advent of Trump may create the strategic breathing space that Tokyo was not afforded during the Obama administration. Abe is keenly aware of the potentially favourable environment for fostering Japan-Russia relations and is therefore moving with a sense of urgency.

A rare opportunity is opening for Japan and Russia to normalise bilateral relations and finally leave behind the legacy of the second world war. But as Tokyo enjoys leeway to pursue a more autonomous foreign policy, it must be careful not to revert to the kind of opportunism that led to a neutrality pact with Stalin’s Soviet Union in 1941 and then to Japan’s fate being linked to that of the Axis powers in Europe.

Japan must choose the path of principled and hard-headed engagement that it followed when it normalised relations with an authoritarian South Korea in 1965 – and again in 1972, when it established diplomatic relations with totalitarian Communist China. Certainly, a peace treaty between Japan and Russia, two great powers, will be of significant benefit to regional stability, as well to both countries’ economies. Abe, though, must not forget the overarching goal of shoring up the liberal international order. 11:01 AM 12/8/2016



Category: Japan

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