News / Asia

    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

    You May Like

    US, Somalia Launch New Chapter in Relations

    US sends first ambassador to Somalia in 25 years; diplomatic presence and forces pulled out in 1993, after 18 US soldiers were killed when militiamen shot down military helicopter

    Brexit Vote Ripples Across South Asia

    Experts say exit is likely to have far-reaching economic, political and social implications for a region with deep historic ties to Britain

    Russian Military Tests Readiness With Snap Inspections

    Some observers see surprise drill as tit-for-tat response to NATO’s recent multinational military exercises in Baltic region

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Testing Bamboo as Building Materiali
    X
    June 27, 2016 9:06 PM
    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Testing Bamboo as Building Material

    For thousands of years various species of bamboo - one of the world's most versatile plants - have been used for diverse purposes ranging from food and medicine to textiles and construction. But its use on a large scale is hampered because it's not manufactured to specific standards but grown in the ground. A University of Pittsburgh professor is on track to changing that. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Orphanage in Iraqi City Houses Kids Who Lost their Parents to Attacks by IS

    An orphanage in Iraqi Kurdistan has become home to scores of Yazidi children who lost their parents after Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh Province in 2014. Iraqi Kurdish forces backed by the U.S. airstrikes have since recaptured Sinjar but the need for the care provided by the orphanage continues. VOA’s Kawa Omar filed this report narrated by Rob Raffaele.
    Video

    Video Re-Opening Old Wounds in a Bullet-Riddled Cultural Landmark

    A cultural landmark before Lebanon’s civil war transformed it into a nest of snipers, Beirut’s ‘Yellow House’ is once again set to play a crucial role in the city.  Built in a neo-Ottoman style in the 1920s, in September it is set to be re-opened as a ‘memory museum’ - its bullet-riddled walls and bunkered positions overlooking the city’s notorious ‘Green Line’ maintained for posterity. John Owens reports from Beirut.
    Video

    Video Brexit Resounds in US Presidential Contest

    Britain’s decision to leave the European Union is resounding in America’s presidential race. As VOA’s Michael Bowman reports, Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump sees Britain’s move as an affirmation of his campaign’s core messages, while Democrat Hillary Clinton sees the episode as further evidence that Trump is unfit to be president.
    Video

    Video New York Pride March A Celebration of Life, Mourning of Loss

    At this year’s march in New York marking the end of pride week, a record-breaking crowd of LGBT activists and allies marched down Manhattan's Fifth Avenue, in what will be long remembered as a powerful display of solidarity and remembrance for the 49 victims killed two weeks ago in an Orlando gay nightclub.
    Video

    Video NASA Juno Spacecraft, Nearing Jupiter, to Shed Light on Gas Giant

    After a five-year journey, the spacecraft Juno is nearing its destination, the giant planet Jupiter, where it will enter orbit and start sending data back July 4th. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Pasadena, California, the craft will pierce the veil of Jupiter's dense cloud cover to reveal its mysteries.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapides’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora