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Vladimir Putin goes to Japan

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe before their meeting at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing, November 9, 2014. REUTERS/Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Kremlin (CHINA - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS) THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS - RTR4DFVZ

A common trope of Western commentary is that since the unification of Crimea with Russia (an event which the West insists on calling an “annexation”) Russia and its leader President Putin have become international pariahs, and are globally isolated.

The reality is that to an extent that the Western and especially the West European public do not know, hostility to Russia is almost entirely confined to certain core nations of the Western alliance with European populations: the US, certain though by no means all European states, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  Outside this small ring of states attitudes to Russia and to Vladimir Putin in particular are very different.  Not only are they becoming globally increasingly influential, but key US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Japan are actively courting them.

A good example of this is President Putin’s recent two day visit to Japan.

As even a very hostile account of the visit in The Diplomat is forced to admit, the Japanese went out of their way to shower Putin with hospitality

The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, went out of his way to make this visit “special” for his Russian guest by arranging for the first day to be spent in his home town, Nagato, in the southern prefecture Yamaguchi of the main island Honshu – a place, famous for its exquisite sake, hot springs, and delicious food. The carefully planned schedule, with a pronounced demonstration of a personal hospitality touch from Abe, listed “relaxing” time in the famous hot springs, and a feast with exotic traditional local food, including exquisite dishes of raw and cooked fugu.

The Diplomat nonetheless deems the visit a ‘failure’ because it did not result in a peace treaty between Japan and Russia, because Russia did not agree to hand over two islands of the Kuril archipelago to Japan, and because of the (relative) absence of commercial and trade agreements between the two countries.

In reality it beggars belief that intractable issues like the Kuril Island dispute, or the question of the peace treaty, which have set Japan and Russia at odds with each other since the 1950s, could be resolved over the course of a single visit lasting just two days.  The Russians before Putin’s visit made it clear that would not happen, and the Japanese cannot ever have imagined that it would.

The point of the visit is that Japan, which throughout the Cold War and for two decades after made no attempt to engage with Russia, is now actively and purposefully doing so.  The invitation to Putin to visit Japan was extended in defiance of US wishes, and the Japanese leadership both during the visit and at the previous east Asian summit in Vladivostok has made clear its determination to turn the page on a century of hostility between Japan and Russia extending all the way back to the 1904-1906 Russo-Japanese War.

I discussed the reasons why Japan might now be intent of forging closer relations with Russia in an article I wrote immediately following the Vladivostok summit

…….there are the obvious economic benefits, with Russia possibly becoming an important future provider of energy and raw materials to these countries, and a possible market for their goods.  Looking further ahead, with its highly educated and well-disciplined workforce, its considerable industrial base, its traditionally very strong scientific base, and its very low and very competitive cost structure, Russia is an obvious partner in future industrial projects.

Behind all the enthusiastic talk from [Japanese Prime Minister] Abe [there is also] the overwhelming reality of the rapid growth of Chinese power.  With both Japan and South Korea having fraught relations with China, it makes sense for both countries to develop good relations with China’s great ally Russia in order to obtain through Russia some influence and capacity to restrain Beijing. 

This is now becoming the increasing pattern across the whole Asia-Pacific region, with Russia seeking and accepting offers of good relations from an increasing number of countries falling under China’s shadow: India, Vietnam, South Korea and Japan.

The Russians for their part have shown great skill leveraging the advantage their undeclared alliance with China gives them to improve relations with these countries, including countries like South Korea and Japan that have never previously been their friends.

As for the Chinese, it is equally in their interest that a country close to them – Russia – should develop relations with countries that might otherwise all too easily simply become their enemies.

As for the failure to achieve a ‘breakthrough’ in the Kuril Islands dispute, or to sign a peace treaty, of which so much is made in the article in The Diplomat, I discussed this too in my previous article

Russia has made it repeatedly clear that it is not prepared to return the islands to Japan in return for a Peace Treaty.  In an interview with Bloomberg given shortly before the meeting with Abe Putin again made that clear

We do not trade territories although concluding a peace treaty with Japan is certainly a key issue and we would like to find a solution to this problem together with our Japanese friends.”

(Bold italics added)

Putin undoubtedly knows that returning the islands to Japan is unacceptable to Russian public opinion.  In 1992 Russia’s then President Yeltsin was forced to call off at the last moment a planned trip to Japan because of public outrage and fears that just a year after the USSR broke up he was preparing to hand the islands over to Japan.  There is no evidence Russian popular feeling on this issue has moderated since then.  In addition the islands are strategically important to Russia since they guard entry points to the Sea of Okhotsk, an assembly and patrol area of Russian strategic nuclear submarines that form part of Russia’s Pacific Fleet.

By contrast both Putin and Abe know that despite noisy demands for the islands from Japanese nationalists, Japanese public opinion has long since written off the islands and is no long much exercised by this issue.

Whilst it is unlikely that Abe will drop the demand for the islands, and he must know that Putin is not going to give them up, his floating of the idea of the Peace Treaty, and the negotiations to achieve it which he has now restarted, is probably his way of putting the islands issue to one side as he and Japan forge closer ties with Russia.

(bold italics added)

In other words, the ‘breakthrough’ is not in the intractable but ultimately less important questions of the Kuril Islands and the peace treaty.  It is in the general state of Russian-Japanese relations.

If the Putin-Abe summits in Vladivostok and in Japan shows that ties between Japan and Russia are forging ahead, they also once again demonstrate something else, which I discussed directly after the G20 summit in Hangzhou.  This is that so far from being isolated Russia, though the weakest of the three Great Powers, has over the last decade replaced the US as the diplomatic centre of the international system.  It is to the Russians, not the US – and not yet to China – that everyone wants to talk.

Just as the Russians are increasingly making the diplomatic weather in the Middle East – with the tripartite discussions between Russia, Turkey and Iran to negotiate a peace settlement of the Syrian conflict being just one example of this – so they are increasingly making the diplomatic weather in the eastern Pacific.

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