Global Perspectives | Japanese-Russian Unbalanced Relations: Expectation and Reality from Abe to Suga
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During former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s second term, Japanese-Russian relations seemingly improved significantly on the surface, with Abe meeting President Putin 27 times. However, Abe’s public diplomatic efforts shifted neither Russia’s position on the Northern Territories (Kuril Islands), nor helped create a more favorable security environment for Japan. With a new prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, should we expect a new course in Japan’s relations with Russia? On October 27th, Dr. Akihiro Iwashita joined us for a conversation on the evolving state of Japanese-Russian bilateral relations and what changes we might see in the relationship under Prime Minister Suga.
"Does the Suga administration have a realistic approach [to leading a peace treaty] with Russia? Of course not. Why not? Because former Prime Minister [Abe] has exhausted this approach with no result. Rather, worse than before. What alters the situation? I think geopolitics around Northeast Asia must shift because Japan wants to invite Russia [to their] side… to counter China, but [in] my opinion, [there’s] little hope for splitting Russia-China ties.”
“I remember 2010, or '09, or '11, before Abe came back. Our foreign policies had a very, very prudent direction. Japan kept claims for four islands, kept claiming four islands, but in power, Japan tried to develop ties with Russia in any sense–– economic or securities or culture–– so Japan never [gave] up four islands, but develop[ed] ties with Russia. I think it was very reasonable, rational but Abe changed the policy… we can't be back to four islands. This is a challenge for us.”
“One of the Achilles heels of Abe had been his difficulties in reconciling with the historical baggage of Japan, both during World War II and before that, and we see that especially coming to the forefront in Japan's continued tempestuous relations with Korea. But also, it could be argued that it was an Achilles heel for Abe regarding Russia, as well that there had been this over emphasis on trying to move forward from its history... trying to reach a peace agreement, trying to reclaim lost territories during World War II without perhaps seeing what the bigger strategic vision of Japan's relations with Russia moving forward.”
“Can Suga kind of overcome some of the obstacles that were put by Abe and focus much more on shelving the northern territory issue? [And] not be so focused on having economic incentives to bring Russia to the table and to have a better strategic approach, given that here in this country, we are going to have an election. There may or may not be a change in American leadership but just like the United States, there is bipartisan support both from the Democrats and the Republicans to take on a stronger approach to China. There is also this bipartisan U.S. approach to see China increasingly as the security threat and that threat actually, is not actually shared as much with Japan. But is there a possibility for a greater alignment of how Japan may view China, may view Russia and allow it to play a greater role in stabilizing a very tumultuous region.”
“It’s very interesting, if I can observe… as someone who studies the opposite, the Western end of the former Soviet Union and Eurasia, I see so many parallels. You know, for example, in the dispute over Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, there are these, you know, theoretical arguments, very intense fights within the Western camp. Ukrainians themselves and Poles and Germans and you know, Americans and Baltic nations, all have a very strong opinion about what should or should not be on the bargaining table. The fact of the matter is unless or until Mr. Putin is prepared to accept any compromise, here's no bargain. It’s an academic discussion. And the dynamic of this reminds me very much of what you've described, and I think it underscores the position that the Kremlin likes to be in, which is to hold a kind of final decision-making power of veto, if you will, and to sort of let everybody else struggle to come up with proposals.”
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