NEW DELHI – Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has assiduously courted Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting with him more than a dozen times in four years. This month he hosted Putin in Tokyo and in his hometown of Nagato (famed for its onsen, or natural hot springs). But Abe’s courtship has so far yielded little for Japan, and much for Russia.
Abe’s diplomatic overtures to Putin are integral to his broader strategy to position Japan as a counterweight to China, and to rebalance power in Asia, where Japan, Russia, China, and India form a strategic quadrangle. Abe has already built a close relationship with India, and he sees improved relations with Russia – with which Japan never formally made peace after World War II – as the missing ingredient for a regional power equilibrium.
But Abe’s trust-building efforts with Russia are not aimed only at checking Chinese aggression. He also wants Russia to return its southernmost Kuril Islands – a resource-rich area known as the Northern Territories in Japan – which the Soviet Union seized just after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. In exchange, Abe has offered economic aid, investments in Russia’s neglected Far East, and major energy deals.
Abe has, however, encountered several obstacles. For starters, Japan is a participant in the US-led sanctions that were imposed on Russia after it annexed Crimea in March 2014. These sanctions have pushed Russia closer to its traditional rival, China; and Putin has publicly identified the sanctions as a hindrance to concluding a peace treaty with Japan.