The Abe-Putin Summit: Timing and Priorities

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin just concluded a two-day summit in Japan focused on the potential to resolve a longstanding territorial dispute and enhance economic cooperation as a means toward that end. The two governments made some progress on the latter and agreed to consult further on ways to incrementally advance bilateral ties. The timing of the summit was significant: it took place as leaders of the European Union met to vote to extend sanctions that were imposed after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 until mid-2017. It also occurred as the Obama administration and U.S. lawmakers begin to initiate investigations into alleged Russian cyber activities during the U.S. presidential election. Both developments, as well as Russia’s ongoing military support for the Assad regime in Syria, reveal the challenge Japan faces in simultaneously trying to develop a path for bilateral diplomacy with Russia to balance China’s growing regional strength while opposing Russia’s violations of international law. This difficult balancing act will become visible again during the Group of Seven Summit in Italy next May.

Q1: What is the historical backdrop for the summit?

A1: The meeting centered mainly on a territorial dispute over four islands north of Hokkaido claimed by Japan but administered by Russia since the Soviet army seized the islands at the end of the Second World War. The two countries restored diplomatic relations in 1956 and Russia agreed in a joint declaration that year to return two of the islands once a peace treaty was signed. But bilateral relations quickly became strained when Japan, a treaty ally of the United States, sought to prevent Soviet expansion in the Pacific during the Cold War. The collapse of the Soviet Union prompted Japan to pursue business ties and renew efforts to address sovereignty over the islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kuriles in Russia. Japan’s recent diplomatic outreach is generally viewed as an effort to draw Russia away from China as the balance of power in Asia becomes increasingly contested. Prime Minister Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is also looking for a diplomatic “win” to give them momentum should Abe decide to dissolve the Diet and call elections in February, as some political pundits anticipate. Diplomatic initiatives independent of the United States play well in Japanese politics–unless they actually cause a crisis in U.S.-Japan alliance relations. There is also evidence of frustration with the Obama administration’s insistence that Japan hold back in its Russia diplomacy as Japanese officials recognize that U.S. policy towards Russia will likely shift in a Trump administration. Abe’s team hopes that his recent meeting with Donald Trump in New York and his planned visit to Pearl Harbor in late December and to Washington in late January will offset U.S. concerns about the new Russia gambit. Polls in Japan show that his effort is playing well domestically, even as hopes for a resolution of the Northern Territories issue have dimmed in recent weeks.

Q2: What were the expectations going into the meeting?

A2: Abe visited Putin in Sochi back in May and outlined an eight-point plan for bilateral cooperation which focused primarily on economic ties as a foundation for advancing the relationship. Subsequent shuttle diplomacy by Abe’s trade and foreign ministers seemed to establish momentum for the summit and when Abe and Putin met on the margins of the APEC Summit in Peru, expectations increased that bilateral relations could be restored. However, resolution over the territorial dispute was increasingly called into question when Moscow openly discussed placing anti-ship missiles on the islands last month. Putin himself downplayed expectations about signing a peace treaty and resolving the territorial dispute in media interviews prior to his visit, repeating Russian sovereignty claims over the islands and complaining about the sanctions regime while welcoming Japan’s efforts to increase economic relations.

Q3: What was accomplished?

A3: The two leaders reportedly addressed the territorial dispute at length and agreed to pursue dialogue aimed at exploring joint economic activities on the four islands as a step toward concluding a peace treaty, though rules and regulations could prove complicated amid fundamental disagreements over sovereignty. The two governments announced that Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) and Russia’s Direct Investment Fund will create a $1 billion fund for a range of investments in Russia to include energy and other sectors. Several memoranda of understanding on bilateral economic cooperation were also announced, signaling the prospect for significant increases in Japanese corporate investment in Russia as bilateral ties improve. At first glance, it appears that President Putin was able to gain a tactical victory of greater economic gain from a G7 nation at the exact time when the remaining G7 members were maintaining their sanctions regime, though the economic package announced at the summit is still short on details.

Q4: Is Abe’s outreach to Russia in U.S. interests?

A4: There is so much that is unclear about future U.S. policy toward Russia that it is difficult to determine whether Japan’s diplomatic and economic efforts vis-à-vis Russia are part of a larger international trend toward accommodating Russia’s interests. It is possible that the Trump administration will follow suit, though there would be little support in Congress for an accommodating stance towards Moscow. In the longer-term a more multipolar Asia in which Moscow is weaned from collaborating with Beijing against U.S. and Japanese interests would be useful. Japan is well-positioned to play a leading role in such a strategy. However, the overwhelming evidence is that Mr. Putin is far more interested in undermining U.S. foreign policy (and domestic politics) than he is in weakening China’s geopolitical position in Asia. In the near-term, therefore, the summit probably complicates U.S. policy interests. Is the summit in Japan’s interests? Again, Russo-Japanese rapprochement would theoretically strengthen Japan’s position vis-à-vis an increasingly assertive China–if Moscow saw the world the same way. The larger risk for Tokyo is that divergence in the G7 on Russia may come back to hurt Japanese interests when it is necessary to call for solidarity in the democratic camp against Beijing’s next violation of international rules and norms.

One way to have managed this risk would have been to condition the economic cooperation on more progress on the territorial dispute. That may still be the case as a matter of substance, but it is too late in terms of the symbolism of the summit. The next opportunity for Japan and the leading democracies to develop common strategies toward Russia will be at the next G7 summit in May. It is not clear what the U.S. or other G7 members’ positions will be in May but it is hoped that the U.S. and Japanese positions will be aligned.

Michael J. Green is senior vice president for Asia and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic, and director of the Europe Program at CSIS. Nicholas Szechenyi is a senior fellow and deputy director of the CSIS Japan Chair.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2016 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Photo Credit: KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Heather A. Conley