As Abe Shinzo proceeds at breakneck pace to reach a breakthrough with Vladimir Putin, at least five questions need to be addressed from the perspective of the United States. First, is there reason to object to a territorial settlement less than the optimal position of Japan in years past? Second, what economic arrangements between Japan and Russia are likely to be seen as inconsistent with the sanctions regime and the reasons for it? Third, how should US leaders respond to Japan’s aspirations for greater autonomy in foreign policy? Fourth, given the importance of coordinating alliance thinking on the strategic architecture of Asia, how should US researchers respond to the reasoning they observe in Japanese sources? Fifth, at what point would Russian behavior cross a line that would warrant more assertive US objections to Abe’s wooing of Putin?
Even as some observers warn about a US attempt to derail a territorial agreement that Abe and Putin might negotiate, assuming that Washington has since the 1950s sought to capitalize on this territorial dispute in order to keep Tokyo and Moscow apart, we should be clear about the history and recent US thinking. Whatever may have been the impact of John Foster Dulles in the mid-50s (this is disputed), the reason territorial talks were put on hold for a quarter century is Moscow’s decision that the security alliance made control over all four islands absolutely necessary. Moreover, the US position since talks restarted has generally been that an agreement—including whatever compromise Japan may choose to make—is welcome, not a reason for US interference. Even today, talk in Washington, DC about any danger from an Abe-Putin accord does not center on the territorial issue. If Tokyo should agree to two islands or two plus alpha, the outcry in Japan that Abe failed to get the required “four islands in a batch” would not be echoed in Washington policy circles.
The economics issue is more complicated because of the sanctions and the sentiment of a new Cold War, enthusiastically being launched by Putin with no interest in resolving existing disputes. Russia’s economy is suffering, and this limits its rapid militarization. Why in these circumstances would a US ally and a country facing military pressure from Russia want to give a major boost to that economy? To be sure, Abe’s reassurances that Japan will not unilaterally break from the G7 sanctions has been noted, as has his stress on assisting in improving the quality of life in the Russian Far East, but does this take into account the possibility that the Russian Far East (even Etorofu and Kunashiri) will be militarized given the priority on reestablishing Russia as a military great power with East Asia a principal arena? If Abe’s eight-point economic program remains rather modest, it is unlikely to satisfy Putin’s requirements for a deal. If not, it could fuel a budget that goes disproportionately to the projection and application of Russia’s military power.
One clear message at Washington, DC gatherings is that the next US president should show respect to the Japanese aspirations for an autonomous foreign policy. In late September when Abe met with Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, he sought declarations of such respect. Thus, any concerns about the negative consequences of a deal with Putin should be carefully limited to geopolitical consequences. For example, what consistency is there in Abe’s strong appeal at the United Nations for a new sanctions resolution on North Korea as well as his fervent support for ballistic missile defense including THAAD and Putin’s hardened opposition to these efforts to rein in the North? The September 24 Yomiuri Shimbun article detailing a shift in Japan’s negotiating position on the island also found hope in Russia playing a positive role in dealing with North Korea rather than honestly acknowledging the increasingly negative role Russia is playing. Many commentaries in the Japanese media have also suggested that an Abe-Putin deal would limit the extent of a Sino-Russian “alliance,” emphasizing the eagerness of Russian officials for strategic ties with Japan and for keeping some distance from China. Yet, there appears to be a big disconnect in analysis of the Sino-Russian relationship and Russian strategic intentions in Washington, DC and Tokyo. This matter is central to the aims and effectiveness of the US-Japan alliance; so it is not easy to respect Japan’s independence on such an important matter.
Reading Japanese articles on the geopolitics of Asia, I find more credibility in writings on Southeast Asia and India than on those centered on Northeast Asia. For a long time exaggerated talk of the Park Geun-hye “honeymoon” with Xi Jinping and South Korea leaning to China was misleading. Recently, coverage of Putin’s “turn to the East” and even of Russian reasoning about Japan’s strategic policies in Asia overlooks how little optimism there is for Japan to break from the demonized US role in the region. Analysis of Russian foreign policy falls far short of the evidence needed for the suppositions that are widely presented. After all, many Japanese present Abe’s wooing of Putin as mainly for strategic reasons. They fault US analysis for failing to separate Putin’s actions in Europe and the Middle East from his distinctive pursuit of multipolarity in Asia. Yet, in this perspective, there are signs of exaggerating Japan’s strategic importance and failing to comprehend Russia’s strategic aims—a matter for coordinated alliance consideration.
Finally, as we look ahead to how the Abe-Putin talks may unfold and US policy evolve, should we expect a point to be reached where US-Japan relations are actually strained? The talks may flounder on Putin’s refusal to allow for an “alpha” beyond returning the two small islands, but Abe may agree to such a “fig leaf” alpha so that a deal is reached. No US involvement is advisable. The negotiations also may be snagged over the inadequate level of Japanese economic support—due to Japanese companies balking at the troubled atmosphere for investment and energy profits or Russia insisting on a massive Japanese role. Abe may be so keen on a deal that he agrees to a transformative Japanese presence. In this case, US-Japanese relations could be strained by the implications for bolstering the Russian military machine and nullifying the effects of sanctions. We should not rule out a further downturn in Russo-US relations, as a more assertive US president reacts to new Russian moves to test the limits of US policies, leaving Abe alone in wooing Putin.
Five “hot spots” in 2017 could test the US-Japan-Russia triangle with China possibly playing a spoiler role. There could be a showdown on the Korean Peninsula, in which Russia—encouraged by China—would stand behind North Korea, as Japan joined in the imposition of joint sanctions with the United States and South Korea. China could press its case in the South China Sea or with Taiwan in a manner that Russia considers that it must support in opposition to Japan. Also, existing conflicts in Syria or Ukraine could lead to new calls for sanctions on Russia, putting Japan on the spot. These problems do not touch on Russian interference in the US elections or Russia’s domestic policies. The issue in each case is geopolitics, going to the heart of the US-Japan military alliance. In 2017, strengthening that alliance and extending it through trilateralism will likely be on the agenda. Russian behavior may leave Abe with little chance of improving relations.
There needs to be more clarification of the nature of the US-Japan divide over Russia. It is not, many need to understand, about US national identity arrogantly rejecting a great power ally’s legitimate quest for an equal voice. It is also not really about Japan’s desire to make its territory whole again as a national identity priority, continuing the campaign of the 1980s until that recently sidelined pragmatic diplomacy to reach an agreement. At stake are different concepts of national identity as well as national interests. For the US leadership this is about universal values, prevention of changing national borders through coercion, and reinforcement of the rule of law. As in the Cold War, Washington seeks an expanded alliance and partnership system opposed to big threats to the international order and resistant to divisive tactics, notably by China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. Abe’s overtures to Putin and the way they are presented in Tokyo raise doubts that some interpretation of Japanese national identity is interfering with “internationalism” as seen in support for shared values in support of global and regional security. Japanese experts insist that, setting the return of islands aside as a means to a “normal Japan” with all of the postwar legacies resolved, pursuit of Russia is about national interests, given a rising threat from China. Whereas the threat is real, the response is not convincing, I argue. It seems instead to be an example of wishful thinking rather than sound strategic analysis.