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Why is Japan's Abe Seeking Better Ties with Russia's Putin?

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe shake hands during their meeting in the Bocharov Ruchei residence in Sochi, Russia, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is trying hard to improve relations with Russia, a neighbor with whom Tokyo has yet to sign a peace treaty after the end of World War II.

Abe has a variety of motivations for reaching out to Russia, which has been receptive to closer ties with Japan in some areas, but not others.

Since taking office in December 2012 Abe has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin five times. Their latest encounter was a significant gesture by the Japanese leader.

Abe's personal touch

Abe added prestige to Russia's opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics by accepting Putin's invitation to attend last Friday's event in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Western leaders stayed away, in an apparent protest at Putin's human rights record.

The Japanese prime minister earned a lunch meeting with Putin on Saturday and a commitment by the Russian president to make a rare visit to Japan in the second half of this year.

Prime Minister Abe plans to return to Sochi for a sixth meeting with Putin in June, on the sidelines of a Group of Eight nations summit.
 
Asia Society analyst Ayako Doi says one factor driving Abe closer to Russia is a worsening of Japan's relations with its two other regional neighbors: China and South Korea.

Both nations have toughened their positions on maritime territorial disputes with Japan in recent years.

Beijing and Seoul also have long resented what they see as Tokyo's failure to atone for wartime aggression in the first half of the 20th century.

Seeking Russian friendship

"There is no improvement in sight for those relationships, so Prime Minister Abe is looking to Russia as a potential bright spot in his foreign policy initiatives," Doi told VOA.

Speaking from Washington, she said Japan also wants to stop Putin from becoming an even closer ally of Chinese President Xi Jinping and potentially supporting China's claims to Japanese-controlled islands in the East China Sea.

Xi also attended the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony and won a meeting with his Russian host, although without the luncheon granted to Abe.

"It almost is like Mr. Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping are both trying to get Mr. Putin in their camp," Doi said. "It is a rivalry for the love of Russia, you might say."

Another motivation behind Japan's Russian outreach is its hope to resolve a decades-old territorial dispute that has held up the signing of a Japan-Russia peace treaty.

Pushing for deal

Japan has long sought to reclaim four islands off the northern coast of Hokkaido from Russia, whose then-Soviet forces captured them in 1945, days before then end of World War II

James Schoff, an Asia analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Abe has two main reasons to be hopeful for a resolution of that dispute.

"The fact that Japan and Russia have a dispute about these territories is acknowledged by both sides, and there is a history of negotiation between them, ever since the end of the war," Schoff said.

He said those factors make the issue more manageable for Japan than its maritime disputes with China and South Korea.

"In those cases, the parties still are in a situation where neither side will acknowledge that a dispute even exists," Schoff said.

"The Koreans say Dokdo island in the Sea of Japan / East Sea is theirs and they are on it, and any claims to it by Japan are completely false and not worth entertaining. And the opposite goes for the East China Sea's Senkaku islands that the Japanese say are theirs and under their administration, while China says to Japan, you have got to acknowledge that there is a dispute over the islands [known in Chinese as Diaoyu]."

An energy win-win

Schoff said Japan's shutdown of its nuclear power plants after the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster also has left it in greater need of fossil fuel imports, particularly natural gas from Russia.

Moscow has a key incentive to boost its economic ties with Japan in areas such as energy.

President Putin has made it a national priority to develop oil, gas and other resources in Russia's Far East and Siberia - economically-neglected areas where Japanese investment would be welcome.

In a gesture to Japan, Russia held a round of peace treaty negotiations at the level of deputy foreign minister in Tokyo on January 31.

But, there was no breakthrough. Moscow reiterated its long-held stance on the four disputed islands that it calls the Southern Kurils, saying they became Russian as a result of World War Two.

Japan considers the islands to be its Northern Territories. No date for further talks has been set.

President Putin also made no explicit mention of the issue in his public remarks with Abe in Sochi.

Russia's cautious approach

Doi said the Russian leader currently has little reason to make territorial concessions.

"For Russia, making the Japanese hopeful about an eventual signing of a treaty is a very good thing, because it can be dangled as a prize to entice Japanese investment and other types of cooperation," she said.

Schoff said Russia still has a motive to seek a better political alliance with Japan.

"There is some worry in Moscow about China’s rising military budgets and military expansionist maneuvers in the maritime sphere. I think Russia likes to have friends in different places and would not mind having a stronger relationship with Japan as a counterweight in that regard," he said.

But, Doi said, Moscow is unlikely to take Tokyo's side in the dispute with Beijing about the East China Sea.

"Russia can see the danger in getting involved in that issue. Mr. Putin also needs Chinese investment and cooperation in all kinds of areas," she said.

Michael Lipin

Michael covers international news for VOA on the web, radio and TV, specializing in the Middle East and East Asia Pacific. Follow him on Twitter @Michael_Lipin

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