Japan’s escalating tensions with China in recent years spurred Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to resolve decades-old differences with another neighbor -- Russia. Just as those efforts offered promise, the Crimea crisis hit.
Now, Abe is backing U.S.-led efforts to punish Russia and President Vladimir Putin is tightening ties with China, with the two nations this week mounting their first joint naval drills near Japan-controlled islands that are at the center of the Chinese-Japanese rift. With a warning against other nations’ planes or ships entering the exercise zone, the budding Russia-China relationship poses fresh challenges to Abe.
The prime minister is the first Japanese leader in a decade to make an official visit to Russia, and has met Putin five times, including on a trip to the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony that was shunned by U.S. President Barack Obama. The initiative, designed to resolve Cold War-era territorial differences and expand the supply of Russian energy to Japan, hit a snag when Abe joined his Group of Seven counterparts to back sanctions on Russia over its Crimea seizure.
“For Abe it was really an opportunity to move Japan out of its position of isolation” in northeast Asia, said Sheila Smith, senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Trying to deal strategically with Russia and China together is a disaster, so picking off one of those makes sense.”
Japan’s relations with neighboring China and South Korea have frayed further since Abe came to power in December 2012, with suspicions in both countries of a revival of Japan’s militant past, aggravating existing territorial disputes.
In contrast to the five meetings with Putin, Abe has yet to sit down with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and South Korean President Park Geun-Hye refused to meet Abe until Obama brokered a summit as he sought to mend ties between the U.S.’s biggest allies in Asia to build a united front against a more assertive China.
In a sign of the improving China-Russian relations, the two countries reached a deal yesterday for Russia to supply natural gas to China through a new pipeline between the two countries, paving the way for hundreds of billions of dollars in fuel sales over the next three decades.
Abe also sought energy deals with Russia as he sought new supplies of fuels with Japan’s nuclear reactors offline following the March 2011 tsunami.
Abe poured energy into building ties with Putin, pledging to resolve before the end of his term a near 70-year-old row over islands off the north of Hokkaido claimed by both countries. Japan and Russia have yet to sign a World War II peace treaty after the Soviet Union declared war just before Japan’s August 1945 surrender and seized the four islands, expelling thousands of Japanese residents.
The two countries agreed to talks aimed at settling the dispute and in the process the two men grew close. On the day of the Crimea incursion the website of the prime minister’s office still featured a large photo of the two leaders smiling and shaking hands.
“There is a very deep personal relationship between the leaders,” said Seiji Kihara, parliamentary secretary for foreign affairs.
Efforts by Abe and his predecessors to improve relations resulted in bilateral trade increasing to a record of $34.8 billion in 2013. Japan also began a joint dialog with Russia’s defense and foreign ministers last year, a framework it had previously established with the U.S. and Australia.
Abe’s wooing of Putin ended when the Japanese leader sided with G-7 partners in punishing Russia. Japan barred entry of 23 Russians targeted by the actions and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida canceled a scheduled visit to Russia. Putin’s planned trip to Japan in the autumn is now in jeopardy.
Even with relations strained, the Russian leader still needs Japan as a hedge against Beijing, said Tina Burrett, assistant professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
“To retain its independence, Russia needs to build alliances with multiple partners across a range of issues,” Burrett said in an e-mail. “Otherwise Moscow risks becoming a mere satellite of Beijing. A partnership with Abe remains in Putin’s interests, especially if Japan can act as a bridge to healing relations with the West.”
China is Russia’s biggest trading partner, and Putin has catered to his host this week by signaling support for an anti-Japanese stance. In an interview with a group of Chinese journalists before the start of his two-day trip that ended yesterday Putin said the two countries ’’share an idea that it is unacceptable to revise the results’’ of World War II, echoing language used by Chinese leaders who regularly accuse Abe of trying to whitewash Japan’s militant past that included the occupation of much of Asia.
Putin and Xi attended a ceremony in Shanghai to mark the start of the joint exercises, which overlap with Japan’s first domestic island defense drills involving all three branches of its Self-Defense Forces, which begins today on the island of Amami Oshima, between Okinawa and Kyushu.
Russian military pressure on Japan is not a new phenomenon. Japan’s fighter jets were dispatched to investigate Russian aircraft approaching Japanese airspace 359 times in the year to March, according to the Defense Ministry. Last month, two Russian bombers were spotted circling much of the Japanese coastline.
Nonetheless, Japan cannot afford to let ties with Russia lapse, according to Muneo Suzuki, a former lawmaker whose office is decorated with a large photograph of himself meeting Putin as a special envoy in 2000.
“Japan needs to take the middle ground between Russia and the U.S.” to prevent a full-fledged alliance between Russia and China, Suzuki said in an interview. He added that he expected Abe to meet Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the State Duma, when he visits Japan next month and that he believed Putin’s visit would go ahead.