Abe’s underperforming Russia policy faces growing political backlash

Australia & Japan in the Region

Volume 7, No 3, March 2019

The June 2018 encounter between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was not the only momentous summit to take place in Singapore last year. The city-state also hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in November at which they agreed to accelerate peace treaty talks based on the countries’ joint declaration of 1956.

This agreement represents a significant concession by Japan. The 1956 joint declaration mentions only Shikotan and Habomai, the smaller two of the four islands whose disputed status has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from sealing a peace treaty since 1945. Putin has long accepted the validity of the 1956 joint declaration. But until now, Japanese governments have considered the promise of two islands insufficient, especially since they account for only 7 per cent of the disputed landmass.

After Abe’s unilateral concession in Singapore, the leaders met again in December to agree that foreign ministers Taro Kono and Sergei Lavrov would have responsibility for the accelerated talks and would meet early in the new year. Abe began 2019 in a positive mood and it was rumoured that he was aiming to conclude an outline agreement when Putin visits Osaka for the G20 summit in June.

This sense of optimism did not last long. On 9 January, the Russian foreign ministry summoned the Japanese ambassador to complain that recent statements by the Japanese leadership ‘grossly distort’ the agreement reached in Singapore. In particular, Moscow was angered by Abe’s comments about the need to gain Russian residents’ understanding about the islands’ transfer to Japan.

None of this has softened Russia’s stance, yet Abe seems determined to offer further inducements

Since then, things have not improved. Despite Abe’s visit to Moscow on 22 January and meetings between Kono and Lavrov in January and February, there is no sign of the promised acceleration. Instead, Russia is taking every opportunity to raise additional hurdles.

Lavrov is demanding that, as a first step, Japan must recognise the results of the Second World War, including Russian sovereignty over all the disputed islands. In other words, Japan must give up its territorial claim and trust that, after signing a peace treaty, Moscow will keep its promise to transfer Shikotan and Habomai. Lavrov is also presenting Japan’s security relationship with the United States as an obstacle, asserting that Russia and Japan are far from international partners and that conditions for concluding a peace treaty are ‘entirely absent’.

This is humiliating for Abe. As well as conceding to base negotiations on the 1956 joint declaration, he has worked hard to cultivate personal ties with Putin, describing him as someone who is as ‘dear to me as a partner’. Since returning to power in December 2012, Abe has visited Russia nine times. Putin has only been to Japan once.

Abe has offered economic incentives and distanced Japan from Western criticism of Russia. This included introducing only token sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and refusing to join G7 partners in expelling diplomats after the Skripal case in March 2018. Abe has also reportedly promised Putin that he would not permit US forces to be stationed on Shikotan and Habomai if the islands were transferred.

None of this has softened Russia’s stance, yet Abe seems determined to offer further inducements. On 15 February, it was reported that Japan is considering eliminating visa requirements for short-term Russian visitors. Then on 19 February it was made public that the government is encouraging Japanese companies to invest in Russia’s Arctic LNG-2 project by promising to finance up to half their stake.

Criticism of the government’s Russia policy is also a feature of the current parliamentary session

While Abe persists with this policy, he is starting to face domestic opposition. To begin with, there is little public enthusiasm for the two-island deal. A Nikkei survey in January found that only 11 per cent of respondents were willing to settle for just two islands. The media is also growing frustrated with the government’s unwillingness to discuss its approach to the talks.

Criticism of the government’s Russia policy is also a feature of the current parliamentary session. Most notably, opposition parties are attacking Abe and Kono for ceasing to use the terms ‘inherent territory’ and ‘illegal occupation’ to describe the disputed islands. These phrases remain official policy but the Japanese leadership is avoiding them for fear of provoking Russia. Additionally, Kenji Eda of the Constitutional Democratic Party has condemned Abe’s continual visits to Russia as ‘a foreign policy of paying tribute’.

There are also rumblings within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). Shigeru Ishiba, who challenged Abe for the party leadership in September 2018, criticises the government’s reluctance to explain its Russia policy and takes issue with Abe’s refusal to use the terms ‘inherent territory’ and ‘illegal occupation’. Likewise, Fumio Kishida — a former foreign minister who sees himself as a leading candidate to replace Abe — has used these sensitive phrases, distancing himself from the Prime Minister.

More broadly, a meeting of the LDP’s foreign affairs research committee on 29 January saw many members calling for the government to adopt a tougher stance towards Russia. Given the serious unpopularity of the policy, it is questionable whether Abe could even secure ratification for a peace treaty within the lower house.

Territorial talks with Russia were once seen as a way for Abe to burnish his legacy. Recently, they are looking more like a political liability.

About the author

James D.J. Brown is Associate Professor and Academic Program Coordinator for International Affairs at Temple University Japan.

Brown’s current research focuses on Russian-Japanese relations, with particular regard to the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories/Southern Kurils. He also continues to work on the relationship between energy and foreign policy.

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