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Abe’s art of the deal with Russia

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WASHINGTON - In contrast with the pomp at the Group of 20 summit in Osaka last month, an air of indifference dominated the meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Just like the previous meetings between the two leaders, the Abe-Putin summit held on the G20 sidelines ended with no tangible progress made toward a peace treaty, let alone resolution of the long-standing dispute over the four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido.

Abe immediately faced routine criticism at home for failing once again to achieve a diplomatic breakthrough, but the real significance of the latest summit — the 26th between them — lay in his conscious decision to skirt around the territorial issue while seeking to accelerate economic cooperation.

It signified a shift in Abe’s “new approach to Russia” with deal-making summitry eclipsing diplomacy, leading the prospect of shelving the territorial dispute to increasingly become inevitable.

Abe’s pursuit of a breakthrough in the territorial dispute was a questionable proposition to begin with. Since the 1956 Japan-Soviet talks, the problem over what Moscow calls the southern Kuril Islands emerged and solidified as a result of great power designs over which Japan had no control.

Moreover, given the tenuous U.S.-Russia relationship, the impasse in the Far East would have been expected largely due to Tokyo’s deepening alliance with the United States, which can establish its military presence anywhere under Japanese sovereignty.

Paradoxically, Abe’s bid for diplomatic gains in recent months has allowed Putin to expose and exploit this fundamental contradiction inherent in Tokyo’s negotiating position of pursuing concessions from Russia on the territorial row while deepening its security ties with the U.S. The Russian leader demanded that Tokyo promise it won’t allow the Americans to build their military bases on the disputed islands were they to be returned to Japan.


© The Japan Times