Abe Shinzo’s Choices in 2015 - Discuss Japan
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Editor's blog  Jan. 23, 2015

Abe Shinzo’s Choices in 2015

IWAMA Yoko, Professor of International Relations, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS)

IWAMA Yoko, Professor of International Relations, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS)

Foreign Ministries are always busy places, but Asian foreign ministries will be extra busy this year. 2015 is the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Pacific War in 1945. There will be lots of declarations to be made, speeches to be written, and commemoration ceremonies to be planned. The memory of the grand ceremony of the seventieth anniversary of the Battle of Normandy last year is still fresh in mind. There will be no comparable ceremony in Asia. The Pacific War was quite a different war. It is remembered for a whole series of gruesome wars, fought virtually island by island. There are so many victims and not enough heroes for us to gather together on a sunny beach one afternoon and hug each other.

There are already rumors circulating about different plans: about Abe Shinzo visiting Pearl Harbor, Barack Obama coming to Hiroshima, a new declaration to be made by Prime Minister Abe in the summer, and so on. On January 5, after paying a visit to Ise Shrine, Abe held his first press conference this year. He made the following statement there:

“This year we mark the milestone of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, a war in which a great number of our ancestors lost their lives, anxious about the fate of their homeland and wishing for the happiness of their families. The peace we enjoy in the present day was built upon the precious sacrifices we made. The path Japan has taken as a peace-loving nation will remain unchanged. Against the backdrop of a dramatically changing international situation, we will make this into a path which we follow even more tenaciously.  We will defend fully and resolutely the lives and happy daily lives of the Japanese people by developing the new security legislation making this possible.

Over these seventy years, Japan has earnestly built up a free and democratic nation while feeling deep remorse regarding World War II. We have also made our greatest possible contributions in order to bring about the peace and development of our friends in Asia and around the world. Taking pride in this, as we head towards the eightieth, ninetieth and one hundredth anniversaries to come, Japan must make still greater contributions towards world peace and stability under the flag of “Proactive Contribution to Peace.” In this milestone anniversary year, I intend to send out to the world the message of our clear resolve regarding this.”[i]

Interestingly, I heard several people say towards the end of 2014 that PM Abe was planning to pay a surprise visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Every time I heard it, I said it was nonsense. Abe might have his convictions, but he knows very well how to choose the right timing and he can distinguish between what is and what is not acceptable. Visiting Yasukuni Shrine right before the seventieth anniversary of the end of WWII is not a realistic choice. Japan does not want to have the former adversaries lined up in 2015, denouncing her that she has repented nothing. So despite many worries, his declaration this summer will be a decent and rather dull one, although he may try to add a different nuance. He will try to mend fences with China and Korea, and it will happen to a certain extent, because the experience of 2013–2014 has been a negative one for both sides, and also because the United States does not want to see a further deterioration of relationships in the Far East. Japan will proceed with the legislation associated with the reinterpretation of Article 9 of its constitution as planned. This will not particularly please its neighbors, but since the United States approves of these changes, they will happen in due course.

The most interesting relationship to watch in 2015 will be the Russo-Japanese one. Here, both sides have crucial decisions to make and both sides will not play the last card until the very last moment. Abe had been steadfastly consolidating the relationship between himself and Vladimir Putin in his second government.

They have met each other seven times in 2013–2014: April 29, 2013 PM Abe’s visit to Russia; June 17, 2013 G8 Lough Erne Summit; September 5, 2013 G20 St. Petersburg Summit; October 10, 2013 Bali APEC meeting; February 8, 2014 PM Abe’s visit in Sochi; October 17, 2014 ASEM meeting in Milan; and November 9, 2014 APEC meeting in Beijing. He is reported to be on very good terms with President Putin. So the expectation for a final breakthrough in Russo-Japanese relationships had been steadily building up, when the Ukraine Crisis started in late 2013.

Putin was scheduled to visit Japan in the fall of 2014, but the visit has been postponed for the moment. However, the feeling that this might be the right moment to push forward and restart the relationship with Russia is still strong in some quarters. Japan and the Soviet Union resumed their diplomatic relationship in 1956 with the Joint Declaration on October 19. But they have failed to sign the Peace Treaty foreseen in the declaration because of differences concerning the Northern Territories.

The Ukraine Crisis has given a further twist to this negotiation. Of course, Japan does not want to recognize the annexation of Crimea and is disturbed by the situation in Eastern Ukraine. But it also has in sight the possibility of moving forward the Russo-Japanese relationship seventy years after the end of the Second World War. Japan has gone along with the Western sanctions against Russia. It has also been stressing the need to keep the window of negotiation open.

For one thing, the Russo-Japanese relationship deserves attention in its own right. If not seventy years after the end of the war, then when? And the prospect of Western sanctions pushing Russia towards dependence on China is a disturbing one for Japan. Russia and China improved their relationship considerably in 2014, including the agreement on gas procurement and to restart export of high-tech weapons from Russia to China. But on the Russian side, there is a huge reluctance and uneasiness about becoming a junior partner of China. Throughout the twentieth century, Russia was the Big Brother of Communism, but now that relationship is reversed because of the Chinese economic surge.

Russia and Japan have potentially huge economic benefits to reap from each other. Japan is always seeking to diversify its sources of oil and gas; Russia direly needs foreign investment and technology. The fall of the crude oil price and the ruble has only multiplied this need. So the Ukrainian Crisis which seemed to block the way to Russo-Japanese rapprochement at first is now bringing it back to the table via the Russian economic crisis.

The Carnegie Moscow Center has come up with a report which neatly sums up the situation. “Moscow and Tokyo need to embrace a strategic approach that will not only fix a mutually recognized border between the two neighbors, but, more importantly, enhance both countries’ standing in the Asia-Pacific by means of a wholly revamped relationship between them.” A viable compromise must “command Russia to give up more than what many think it must, and Japan to receive less than what most Japanese believe it ought to… The South Kuril Island issue can only be solved within the context of a fundamentally new strategic approach, with Moscow and Tokyo viewing the other party as a valuable resource for their own interests.” The report propagates to make Japan “Germany in the east” for Russia.[ii]This is an interesting expression since even during the Ukrainian Crisis, Germany and Japan have been the two powers most open for dialogue and negotiation with Russia. If Japan wants to renew its partnership with Russia, something like West German Ostpolitik in the early 1970s can be foreseen. The Soviet Union then, as Russia is today, was in desperate need of foreign investment and technology, and was ready to compromise for that purpose. Japan on its side, was not particularly pressed to improve its relationships with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but today, under a totally different strategic environment, would profit much more from a better partnership with Russia. Per chance, both sides, despite many domestic difficulties, have a rather strong leadership, which is not always the case in these two countries.

On the Japanese side, agreeing for anything less than the return of all four islands is a drastic change of position which could easily turn into a political suicide. But one quality Abe has shown is his daringness to challenge the taboos of post-war Japanese domestic politics. Of course he needs to persuade Western allies and partners before going ahead with any change. There will certainly be protests that Japan’s moves undermine the Western sanctions on Russia because of the Ukrainian Crisis. But privately, diplomats of many Western countries I have talked to agree that there is always a need to mix carrots with sticks; the challenge is to find the right proportion to produce results. On the Russian side, most people think territorial concessions in the present situation are totally out of the question. How much pressure the deteriorating economic situation will put on Putin is still unclear. So as the weather gets warmer, the moves in the two capitals may become interesting to watch.

Translated from an original article in Japanese written for Discuss Japan. [January 2015]

[i] New Year’s Press Conference by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Monday, January 5, 2015

[ii] Dmitri Trenin and Yuval Weber, “Russia’s Pacific Future: Solving the South Kuril Islands Dispute,” The Carnegie Papers, Carnegie Moscow Center, (December 2012).