Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Shinzo Abe Pushes Hard on a Regional Agenda: Stuart McMillan Reviews the Recent Abe-Putin Meeting and Its Aftermath

Academic journal article New Zealand International Review

Shinzo Abe Pushes Hard on a Regional Agenda: Stuart McMillan Reviews the Recent Abe-Putin Meeting and Its Aftermath

Article excerpt

When Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan, hosted a visit by Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, last December, he did so against United States wishes. But Japan is a neighbour of Russia and has a longstanding island dispute with Russia, dating from the end of the Second World War and involving islands to the north of Japan. It was also part of his plan to strengthen Japan against China. After the visit he signed a new defence agreement with Australia and sought to shore up Japanese and US influence in South-east Asia with a series of visits in January.

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After China overtook Japan as the second largest economy in the world, it became too easy to underestimate the importance of Japan. This tendency was made stronger by the attention paid to China's growth rates, its military build-up and aggression and territorial claims in the South China Sea. Yet Japan is a powerful regional power and recent talks between Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan, and the leaders of Russia, the Philippines, Australia, Indonesia and Vietnam all have the potential to be significant for the whole Asia-Pacific region, New Zealand included.

The talks with Russia were the most difficult and the outcome least certain. Even before Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, arrived in Japan for a visit on 15 and 16 December, it had become clear that Abe's hopes for the meeting--the return of islands Japan calls the Northern Territories and the signing of a peace treaty formally bringing the Second World War to an end between the two countries--had no hope of being fulfilled.

The islands were taken by the Soviet Union in the last few days of the Second World War. Under the San Francisco Treaty of 1951 Japan was forced to cede the Kuril Islands. Japan has long maintained, however, that the four islands in the chain closest to Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, Kunashira, Otorfu, Habomai and Shikotan, were not included in that arrangement. Some 17,000 Japanese citizens fled these islands. The Soviet Union and then Russia have maintained sovereignty over all four islands since that time. Japan has refused to sign a peace treaty until the islands belong to Japan again. A compromise was proposed in 1956 under which two of the islands, Habomai and Shikotan, would be returned to Japan and a peace treaty signed but nothing came of it.

Adverse signals

The signs that little would be settled during President Putin's visit to Japan abounded. Before he left Russia he denied that Russia had a territorial dispute with Japan, though he conceded that Japan thought it did. He said that the focus of the talks should be on economic deals. He had declined the offer of a male Akita dog as a mate for the dog which had been an earlier gift from Japan. He turned up more than two hours late for his meeting with Abe. Russia had also announced that it was placing anti-ship missiles on two of the disputed islands, Kunashira and Otorfu. Putin's spokesman, Dimitry Peskov, had said that Russia had a sovereign right to place missiles on the islands and he hoped (his degree of optimism remained unclear) that would not spoil the atmosphere for the talks. Moscow had itself been provoked by an argument from Shotaro Yachi, head of Japan's National Security Secretariat, who raised the possibility that US bases might be put on the islands when they were returned to Japan. For Abes part he had shown great hospitality by inviting Putin to Abe's home province of Yamaguchi and suggesting a bath together in the hot pools, a suggestion Putin declined.

Resolving the issues between the two countries was always going to be hard. Among the most difficult were:

* Russia considers the Sea of Okhotsk a prime defence area. The Kamchatka Peninsula is home to part of its Pacific fleet of surface ships and submarines. For a while Russia used to claim that it needed those islands claimed by Japan to have ice-free access, though Geoffrey Jukes, a former international relations scholar at the Australian National University, found a Russian map showing that major passages were ice-free. …

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