Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Abe's Posturing With Putin

In pursuing global legitimacy, Japan's PM wants to further engage Russia. Odds are she won't be impressed

It would be an understatement to say that Japan and Russia have an unfortunate and difficult mutual history. Like China, Russia suffered early on as a result of Japan's struggle to become a global power, which they equated with national survival. Those who look fondly upon the Soviet era remember that Japan was part of a global alliance which attempted to kill the revolution in its crib. For the past seventy years the two countries have been unable to reach accord on a peace treaty, and public opinion within one country tends to view the other in low regard.

Nevertheless, Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, refreshed by signs of Abenomics' incremental success and and a perceived breakthrough with South Korea over vexing historical issues, now wants to engage Russian leader Vladimir Putin and come to a similar resolution over the Kuril Islands, former Japanese territory seized by Russia at the end of World War 2. The issue is the primary obstacle to a formal peace treaty between the two nations, and Abe is now stressing the relative importance of the end product over the minor details the islands represent.

There is always a functional aspect to diplomacy, and more than most others, the Japanese have exemplified this. During the 1973 oil shock Japan made lip service toward Arab grievances, but the substance of their policy response was to maintain existing aid packages and diversify their foreign oil sources. Similarly, some say that Abe's tatemae here is to ensure Japan has a place in the economic development of the Russian Far East, and further opportunities to buy energy resources from Russia.

Nevertheless there are pitfalls. Japanese companies see investing in the Russian Far East as an expensive prospect with slow returns, being still mostly wilderness with little urban support infrastructure in place, and made further daunting by Russia's opaque and fungible business regulation culture. Also, Russia has a long memory, holds grudges, and emphasizes the strategic value of holding territory. Abe's optimism may be misplaced. Recent successes, and new opportunities for influence presented by hosting the G7 conference along with a return engagement at the UN Security Council this year may not be enough.  And if it indeed is, it may turn out to be as costly politically as the Siberian intervention was.

But in the end, it may be most advantageous for Japan to have made the overture, even if it bears little or no fruit. "At least we tried." That may be another tatemae.

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