Japan’s Debates on Russia and China: What is New in the Final Months of 2018?

Gilbert Rozman

Japan’s relations with China and Russia have shifted in important ways in the final months of 2018, but each bilateral relationship needs to be differentiated into multiple dimensions. Below, drawing on Japanese newspapers and articles, I consider five dimensions: 1) politics between the national leaders; 2) national identity issues, including territorial disputes and history; 3) trade and cooperation on economic challenges; 4) regional security architecture and the role of the United States in Asia; and 5) the framing of the relationship as understood by the Japanese distinction between the two poles of tatemae and honne. Some consider the changes recently set in motion far-reaching, crediting Abe’s persistence. Some attribute at least certain parts of the recent transformation to the precedent-shattering impact of Trump. Still others doubt that change is genuine, pointing to contradictory outcomes and to ongoing, overwhelming polarizing forces. This article concludes with arguments pro and con Abe’s “new approach” to Putin, which easily outweighs Abe’s summit with Xi Jinping as the focus of debate about where Japan is heading.

On June 11 Donald Trump embraced Kim Jong-un at their Singapore summit, shaking up the security environment to the consternation of Japan more than of any other country. First on September 11 in Vladivostok and then on November 14 in Singapore and December 1 in Buenos Aires, Vladimir Putin and Abe Shinzo exchanged appeals to accelerate bilateral talks, agreeing on a new framework. Also, on October 26 Abe met with Xi Jinping in Beijing as the two leaders proclaimed a new era in bilateral relations. In the background, as Abe’s relationship with Moon Jae-in teetered downturn after the forced labor issue was inserted by a Korean Supreme Court decision into the hopper of how the 1965 normalization treaty should be interpreted, the Japanese were drawn into a far-reaching debate over their country’s diplomatic options in a quickly changing Northeast Asia. Prospects for rapid changes in Trump’s regional policies—toward a second summit with Kim with concern that a breakdown could follow, toward a trade war with China despite a short-term truce called when Trump had dinner with Xi in Buenos Aires, toward mounting sanctions on Russia in spite of Trump’s adoration of Putin, and toward untethered Trump as Secretary Mattis departed—cast a dark shadow on the Japanese debates.

The Debate over Abe’s summit with Xi and three summits with Putin

One focus of Abe’s diplomacy in the summer and early autumn was finding common ground with Xi Jinping, arousing a lively debate in Japan. Will it lead to an FTA—trilateral with South Korea or RCEP with ASEAN in the lead—despite the US warning when it inserted an anti-China “poison pill” into its trade deal with Mexico and Canada? Will it produce confidence-building measures in the East China Sea even as Sino-US tensions over the South China Sea with Japan supporting its ally are mounting? Will there now be regularized summits and trust-building between Japan and China at a time when Sino-US channels of cooperation are fraying? Having led in warnings about the threat from China during his recent two terms as LDP president and prime minister, is Abe shaking up US planning to stand strong against China? Yet, the fuss soon receded, as the limits of the October 26 summit were widely recognized with scant follow-up.

In contrast, the subject of Japan-Russia relations aroused growing debate through the fall months.
As has been the case since 2012, after Putin broached the subject of resuming talks with Japan with the goal of reaching a “draw” on the territorial issue and then sent Patrushev to Tokyo for talks even before Abe took office, Abe takes the initiative. (Putin indicated on November 15 that the new framework they forged was at Abe’s initiative.) Whereas many have argued that Abe’s thinking is centered on winning approval at home for resolving one of the three unfinished tasks he has identified (with constitutional reform and resolution of the abduction issue together with normalization with North Korea), the evidence is mounting that Abe’s primary preoccupation is strategic—to seize the opportunity of Russia’s turn to Asia (assumed to be not only a turn away from Europe but also a rebalance from dependence on China to diversification in Asia). As the strategic context has worsened for Japan—due to the aggressive Xi Jinping foreign policy and the growing military power of China as well as a rising North Korean nuclear and missile threat—Russia has grown in importance. Yet, Abe’s frustration—some would say desperation—has grown due to the strategic context for Russia from 2014 also changing with its greater hostility toward the United States, lessening the chances for shifting away from China. Whereas in late 2012 Sino-Russian relations were tense over Russia’s move to sell submarines to Vietnam and Putin was signaling his interest in Japan, leading Abe in 2013 to start 2 + 2 talks with Russia as only the fourth partner for them after allies (the United States, Great Britain, and Australia), strategic talks since 2014 were delayed and then revealed a widening rift. The fact that Abe in 2014 signed on to sanctions over Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, despite trying to straddle the G7 and Russia with minimal measures and unmistakable reluctance, has spoiled the atmosphere, Japanese and Russians argue. Still, Abe persisted, especially since 2016, and Putin sees a way to end sanctions.

The first round of the Abe-Putin dance in 2013 saw Abe confident that Putin wanted to balance China but unwilling to say so publicly and Putin aware that Abe also sought such a balance but was keeping the focus on the return of the islands. The second round from the spring of 2016, after a two-year hiatus where both Abe and Putin made occasional gestures to show that their interest had not waned, reflected Abe’s sense of urgency to rekindle Putin’s interest in a different strategic environment, showcasing an 8-point economic program and a new intensity. Symbolic of the wider gap on security that had to be breached was Putin’s oft-repeated phrase, a “lack of mutual trust,” accompanied at times by a comparison to how Moscow and Beijing agreed to a new treaty in 2001 that raised trust and then within a few years resolved their territorial dispute. For some, it was not failure to agree on the legal basis for joint economic projects on the islands, but Russia’s hostility to the United States, the US-Japan alliance, and Japan’s ongoing sanctions as well as excessive dependence on its ally that led to an impasse over the next two years. While Japanese boosters of a deal briefly took heart from Trump’s positive attitude toward Putin, they joined Russians in blaming Congress for blocking Trump and making the security context worse. In this perspective, Washington errs in pursuing a dual containment policy toward Beijing and Moscow, unwisely standing in the way of Japan’s strategy to drive a wedge between the two. In any case, Abe and Putin appeared to be at an impasse as the summer of 2018 was ending.

A third round between Abe and Putin was launched in September 2018 in response to the shock Japan felt when Putin surprised Abe at the Eastern Economic Forum with a call to sign a peace treaty by the end of the year without conditions, i.e., no territorial agreement. This flew in the face of Japan’s longstanding position and could have led to a sense of hopelessness. Up against a wall, Abe chose to make clear what had been implicit: he would revert to a stance Japan took in 2001-02 with Putin’s agreement to accept the legal validity of the USSR-Japan 1956 treaty and agree to a peace treaty on that basis, leaving clearer than before that talks on the two big islands would be problematic, if they occurred at all. Was this because even a limited deal would allow Abe to claim a success in ending one of the postwar challenges he had identified? Was it because he calculated that taking the islands issue off the table would allow for talks on security with Moscow, which had become Abe’s priority, given his preoccupation with China? Was this a last-gasp attempt to avoid failure or an accurate assessment of what Putin would do, jump-starting the languid talks into a dynamic set of exchanges likely to succeed in 2019? Was Putin thinking long-term and Abe rushing before he leaves office in 2021, leading toward a bad deal? What additional conditions would Putin place on a deal before it could be realized? Lots of questions were being asked as the third round of Abe-Putin diplomacy accelerated with two more summits.

On December 5 Mainichi editorialized about the perils of rushing into a new framework for Japan-Russia relations over the territorial issue after Abe and Putin had agreed on November 14 in Singapore to accelerate peace talks. The foreign ministers of the two countries were assigned the task of realizing this objective with the deputy foreign ministers, as before, conducting the talks. Foreign Minister Kono Taro, whose grandfather in 1962 as agricultural minister conducted talks with Moscow on fishing, now has the responsibility for the talks with Sergei Lavrov, the 14-year veteran foreign minister. They are to negotiate the wording of an agreement on the basis of international law and past treaties, while Abe will go to Russia in January and Putin to Japan for the G20 in June to finalize the deal. Yet, the editorial notes, despite lots of prior talks, the opposing views have not been reconciled. This time there is agreement that the 1956 Japan-Soviet treaty will be the foundation for the handover of two islands to Japan after a treaty is signed. Russia has yet to make clear if Japan will have sovereignty over these islands after the transfer, refuses to hold talks on the larger two islands, and is warning about US troops stationed on the transferred islands. In the end, Russia insists, the demarcation would be on the basis of the post-WWII situation, not Japan’s claim that the four islands are inherent Japanese territory. It is difficult to imagine that the differences can be settled by June, the article adds, raising concern that Abe is anxious for a proclaimed success in advance of the expected summer Diet elections, that Japan-US relations will be damaged by Abe’s offer to Putin to demilitarize the islands, and that Japan is curtailing any discussion of Russia’s “illegal occupation.” If the treaty is based on one-sided concessions, the Diet should not ratify it, readers are told. More on the pro and con thinking about the new talks follows after we discuss five distinct dimensions.

Politics between the national leaders

As Abe and Putin prepare for their 25th meeting in January, the widespread assumption is that their personal chemistry bodes well for a breakthrough targeted for June 2019 when Putin goes to Japan for the G20. Each setback, when the predicted outcome of a summit is not achieved, is dismissed as unimportant because the bond between the two remains strong. Each is secure in his post and can deliver on a deal, compromising in defiance of past public thinking, observers argue. Abe is in a hurry since he seeks to use an agreement to boost the LDP in July, which could see “double” elections to the Upper and Lower Houses, paving the way to his constitutional revisions. Failing so far on that goal, on the targets of Abenomics, and on the abductions issue with North Korea, agreement on the return of at least two islands is considered the only one of Abe’s four, “legacy” objectives within reach. Putin’s motivation is cloudier, even if Moscow would get the deal that it had wanted in 1956, 1992, and 2002, affirming only its minimal 1956 commitment.

Abe had long sought summitry with Xi Jinping and has overcome the image of China isolating Japan with their meeting in October and expectations that Xi will reciprocate in Japan in 2019. There is no talk of personal warmth, but both men benefit from an image of working relations in pursuit of overlapping economic interests while bilateral tensions are downplayed. Trouble in bilateral relations expressed in China’s attitudes toward Japanese leaders since 2011 is put aside. Yet, there is scant sense in Japan that this supposedly new stage in Japan-China relations means a breakthrough of any note; the debate on Abe-Putin talks is far more intense and wide-ranging.

While Putin and his relationship with Abe are often treated well, the case that Putin is similar to Xi has also been made. In the August Toa Okamoto Ryuji put Xi Jinping’s strongman ascent in historical perspective, equating it to Putin’s power grab in Russia and explaining it in terms of Lenin’s democratic centralism and China’s history of autocracy. If some in Japan had described Abe’s push for power similarly, he disagrees, insisting that China and Russia share a distinct past.

 National identity issues, including territorial disputes and history

The national identity divide between Tokyo and Beijing is regarded as unbridgeable, while that between Tokyo and Moscow is treated as narrowly centered on the Northern Territories and now subject to a deal. Coverage of Russian behavior that indicated a sharp identity gap is less than in the past, when the history of WWII was more showcased, while talk of the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” initiative and intense coverage of Xi’s domestic agenda convey a clear identity threat.

Xi has used the “history” card against Abe, there was alarm that Putin would join Xi in playing that card with a focus on both rejection of the verdicts of WWII and unjust territorial demands, and Abe’s drive for constitutional revision and other identity shifts threatened worse to come. To get Xi to focus instead on economics and Putin to settle the national identity problem puts Abe in a positive light. Quieting the clamor over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands and resolving the Northern Territories problem that had befuddled relations between Tokyo and Moscow, serve to boost Abe’s stature, even if he has had to backpedal on Japan’s prior demands on Russia. He rightly understood that a right-wing leader with strong national identity credentials could make concessions and that the Japanese public does not care enough about the islands Russia seized in 1945 to pose a serious challenge to a deal, especially with the fig leaf that joint economic activity and visa-free travel on the two larger islands could still give Japan some benefits ahead.

Intensified pursuit of a deal on the islands is raising national identity issues that could scuttle agreement. On December 5 Russian ambassador Mikhail Galuzin wrote in Yomiuri that a key to a deal is how to interpret “transfer” of territory, respectful of each other’s emotions. He added that the allies at Yalta agreed to transfer the Southern Kuriles (Northern Territories) to the victorious Soviet Union and that considerable time may be required to work out the details of a transfer, given the great security value of the island both for the Okhotsk Sea, where Russia keeps its strategic submarines, and for the now important “Arctic Sea route.”  His stress on rights of the victor reinforced concern about the conditions to be imposed for any transfer. Nagoshi Kenro wrote on December 7 in Sankei that if Russia agrees to hand over the islands but insists on retaining for itself sovereignty and maritime control, Japan should cease negotiations or, alternatively, if Russia follows the Okinawa precedent and transfers sovereignty but retains administrative rights, this would be unacceptable too. Japan’s identity goals may not be met.

AERA on December 10 described an exchange plan for Russia to agree to two islands to transfer to Japan in return for Japan to recognize its sovereignty over Crimea. Given fierce opposition in Russia to abandoning the fruits of victory in WWII, Russia needs this linkage and may not agree to Japan’s sovereignty over the islands it may eventually transfer. Naturally, Japan would end all sanctions against Russia as well. A peace treaty comes with respect for the territorial integrity of the other side. Russia would also put conditions on US bases on the islands, requiring talks with the United States, likely delaying the process beyond Abe’s tenure. This is the scenario anticipated, as Abe would have to commit to the Crimea exchange early, damaging ties to the United States and the European Union while Russia could drag out the process that would actually result in a transfer.

Abe’s urgency for a deal on all-sided cooperation before the Osaka G20, not a narrow deal over islands, could stumble (apart from challenges on other areas of cooperation) on the sovereignty issue, argued Nikkei on December 3. The “keyword” in the view of Yomiuri on November 17 is “transfer” with implications for sovereignty in conditions likely to be imposed by Moscow. Thus, even after Abe has abandoned the big identity goal of insisting on a deal for four islands before signing a peace treaty, Japanese fear a national identity clash will derail accelerated 2019 talks. 

Trade and cooperation on economic challenges

Abe used economic carrots to lure Putin and Xi into policy changes. His eight-point plan in May 2016 was viewed in Japan as a sweetener, but seen in Russia as meager, as mega-projects were sought. His decision in May 2017 to send a high official to the BRI conference and then to welcome cooperation with BRI on infrastructure made an impact in China, but his conditions for transparency—among others—raised doubts. Yet, Moscow’s desire to remove sanctions and overcome signs of stagnation led Putin to further test Abe, and Xi’s worry about US trade tariffs and fast-slowing economic growth made Japan more appealing, especially if it could alter the narrative on BRI. In straightened economic circumstances, the implications of improved bilateral ties are important. Intense coverage of the emerging Sino-US trade war contrasted to narrow writings on possible Russo-Japan economic cooperation as leverage for a deal. There was little optimism that closer economic ties with China would lead to solving other bilateral problems and little excitement about expanded economic ties with Russia, even if the leverage from them was seen as important.

The Arctic Sea route emerged as a significant theme for bilateral relations, when Ambassador Galuzin showcased it in an opinion piece for Yomiuri on November 7, noting that Yokohama to Murmansk is 6,000 km by this route and 12,000 km by the Suez Canal and that a treasure house of resources would be opened along with the route. Yamal natural gas contracts with Japan are already signed, able to raise Japan’s reliance on Russian LNG from 9%. Now, Galuzin argues, Japan should take a constructive role in developing this route in line with Abe’s rhetoric of unlimited possibilities in Japan-Russia relations. Yet, on October 29 Yomiuri had editorialized that using this route required international rules to be followed, including freedom of navigation and control over environmental ramifications. It warned of Trump’s disinterest, calling for US leadership in setting the rules, in sharp contrast to Galuzin’s insistence on Russia’s role. Another economic issue was raised by Sankei on November 23, noting JBIC’s inspection of an electricity import plan from Sakhalin to Hokkaido with the Tokyo area as the terminus—something that Russia strongly desires but would seem to be at odds with its goal of getting Japan to import lots of LNG from Yamal. Both issues are depicted as “leverage” for reaching a deal on the islands.

Regional security architecture and the role of the United States in Asia

Japanese aspirations to alter the regional balance of power are an important driver in wooing Putin, and Putin’s hopes for driving a wedge between Tokyo and Washington are a factor in his attentiveness to Abe, Japanese sources widely indicate, while Abe and Xi are locked into a more unambiguous rivalry with lesser expectations of change, even if on North Korea there is room to cooperate more, and certain confidence-building measures could provide some breathing space to both sides. As ties with the United States grew tenser for China and Russia, the image of reduced tension with Japan could prove convenient. Also, Abe could gain politically from the view that his “pro-active” diplomacy is working. Security concerns have risen to the top in Japanese coverage.

The crux of the difference between Tokyo and Washington is in their reading of Moscow and its relationship to Beijing. Tokyo sees Putin as intent on distancing Russia from China, if still careful to do that discreetly. It sees the Ukraine events of 2014 as a calamity, interrupting the breakthrough in sight for Abe with Putin and driving Putin into the arms of Xi Jinping, leading to a “semi-alliance.” The United States saw Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and coziness with Xi as part and parcel of the same mindset that should drive Tokyo and Moscow apart. It faulted Tokyo for letting the illusion of Russian multipolarity and balancing against China shape Tokyo’s policy to Moscow. In their implied warnings to Tokyo, Russians explained why they were refraining from moves that could have signified a full alliance with China: not connecting its territorial dispute with Japan to China’s in a double squeeze, and holding joint military exercises with China in Eastern Siberia, not on the islands Japan disputes next to Hokkaido. Such reasoning allowed the Japanese to continue to hope that Putin was balancing against China, justifying the effort to accelerate the bilateral dialogue. Yet, the shadow of poor Russo-US relations was hard to ignore.

For Washington to be identified as excluded from guaranteeing security on any territory that is administered by Japan calls into question its guarantee to come to Japan’s support on another of its administered territory, i.e. the Senkaku Islands. Moscow is playing a tricky game posing a challenge to the alliance in a manner that could redound to Beijing’s benefit. Abe has no intentions of asking the United States to place bases on two islands that could be returned (indeed, the two are tiny and never seemed worthy of Russian bases), but that does not mean he intends to ask it officially to exclude the islands in a manner that could put the US role elsewhere in doubt.

Despite Yomiuri’s enthusiasm for Abe’s diplomacy, it editorialized on November 16 that Japan had to resist Putin’s efforts to damage Japan-US relations, insisting that the security treaty not apply to islands transferred. It argued that Putin’s political position at home is weakening with the impact of sanctions, economic troubles, and social discontent. This gave the appearance of calling for tough diplomacy, not yielding to thinking that Russia is now in the driver’s seat. In the January 2019 Bungei Shunju Akasaka Taro warned that Abe may be so eager for a legacy that he would strike a bad deal on the one possible achievement in sight that could lead also to success in constitutional revision through a double election boost after the deal: getting back just two islands, Abe may pretend that there is a prospect for two more; he may fudge on the critical sovereignty issue, being tricked by Putin; and he may cast doubt on the applicability of the Japan-US alliance with ramifications for US support on the Sentaku issue, warns Akasaka.

The framing of the relationship between the two poles of tatemae and honne

Tatemae has come to dominate Japanese debates on foreign policy. It can be summarized as the following: 1) ignore the repugnant side of dealing with Donald Trump, John Bolton, and others on the Trump team apart from the traditional security types, at least until Mattis left ; 2) feign upbeat results from the continuing saga of Abe-Putin diplomacy on the longshot possibility that Putin can be flipped enough on China to alter the trajectory of Sino-Russian alliance-building, while giving Abe some chance to take credit for the historic achievement of recovering two islands in a deal that would have been possible multiple times since 1956; 3) cast the Abe-Xi summit as the start of a new era, which may seem unjustified apart from both sides sensing that at this moment of apprehension a little stability to their relationship is needed; 4) “forget Korea,” with Moon’s image at a new low in Japan, but the rationale for Tokyo and Seoul to find common cause has never been greater; 5) pretend the Quad is advancing nicely with Abe’s diplomacy as its driving force, when US relations with India are key and still lacking presidential direction; and 6) take Japan’s demand for resolution of the abductions issue with Kim Jong-un as a precondition for talks, when Japan is a bystander under serious peril with almost no say over the biggest crisis in foreign policy that it faces. This is a difficult environment, but tatemae provides reassurances.  

The Russians and Japanese have arguably been negotiating under false pretenses, with China and the United States looming very large in the background. The Russians have long left the clear impression that their goal is massive Japanese investment in the Russian Far East—energy and pipelines to carry it, bridges and tunnels and transportation infrastructure, industrial projects for diversification, and quality of life breakthroughs. The Japanese have primarily justified their diplomacy as the recovery of islands lost in 1945, satisfying a national identity obsession while giving a boost to Abe as the leader who finally settled this lingering postwar conundrum. Yet, as talks have proceeded, Japan’s priority has increasingly been revealed to be security, tilting Russia away from a headlong rush to China, while Japanese have rested their pursuit on their case that Russia is pursuing Japan, to a considerable extent, for the same reason, even as some in Russia take the view that Russia’s talks with Japan are aimed at weakening the Japan-US axis. In what is asserted about Japan-Russia priorities, the actual objectives are often partially obscured.

Mainichi editorialized on November 29 that a balance had to be struck between difficult talks with Russia and sincere explanations to the Japanese people since for Diet approval of a treaty public support would be necessary. Moscow took umbrage at mention of “illegal occupation,” while the public believes that is exactly what occurred. Dropping that theme is a case of tatemae. Earlier on November 16 Mainichi had asserted that after two years of putting joint economic development first, the two sides had failed and turned instead to a “new approach,” which it also found problematic. Each impasse is brushed aside in favor of optimism over a new pathway. Sankei’s opinion piece on November 16 reaffirmed the hardline stance of the right: taking the 1956 declaration as the basis of talks is dangerous, shaking the principle of returning all four islands. Nihon Keizai Shimbun agreed on November 16 that 1956 as a base is problematic, citing views of politicians from opposition parties. Genba Koichiro, foreign minister under the DPP, wrote in Yomiuri on December 8 that Abe would weaken Japan’s negotiating position, accepting Russia’s stance that the two big islands belong to it, not just agreeing to a deal on two islands first and continued talks. From various sides, Japanese are reaffirming their longstanding views of the origin and justice of the territorial problem, but tatemae requires dropping such arguments.

Catering to Russia by silencing Japan’s genuine thinking may facilitate a deal, but it also may just create the illusion that a deal is within reach or raise problems for building a lasting relationship of trust. Pretending that Putin is more conciliatory than he really is poses another form of tatemae that bodes poorly for a breakthrough. This has been the pattern in Abe’s pursuit.

The pros and cons of Abe’s pursuit of Putin

Togo Kazuhiko in the December Chuo Koron and in the December 4 Yomiuri, and Suzuki Muneo in the December 7 Yomiuri—both veterans of the Irkutsk agreement in 2002 who feel vindicated by Abe’s virtual revival of Japan’s past diplomatic position—strongly supported the new approach. They made the following points: Putin in Vladivostok in September in his surprising call for signing a peace treaty by year’s end was not shelving the territorial issue, as media reported, but hinting at readiness to transfer two islands (secretly discussed with Abe) and spurring accelerated action, opening a big opportunity for Abe backed up by the signal from Putin at the Valdai Club on October 18 sending a message for Abe to make a proposal; Putin is motivated by the implications of an agreement for Japan’s acceptance of Crimea as Russia’s and by a desire to team up with Japan since they have been excluded in talks on the Korean Peninsula as well as by a desire to attain free passage through the straits controlled by Japan for navigation related to the Arctic Sea route; and Japan would gain through Russia’s recognition that Japan controls the Senkaku Islands and by effectuating security cooperation when China may gain control of the Korean Peninsula, leaving Japan exposed on the front line of a deepening Sino-US confrontation. Taking the view that Japan was responsible for the failure to capitalize on prior windows of opportunity, this viewpoint holds that Japan has one more final chance or Russia will see no reason to try again. The uniqueness of this situation is attributed by Sato to Trump’s “America First” and by Togo also to Xi’s “China First,” raising the power of Japan’s diplomacy to neighboring states, including to Russia even if Putin does not want to arouse China. Tokyo can build on the basis of its US alliance with ties to Russia, Togo argues, as Sato stresses Russia’s fear of Chinese annexation of the Russian Far East. Also noted is a need to avoid the prospect of Chinese and Koreans moving onto the islands that had been developed by Japan. Mention is made of changing power dynamics since 2001 that leave no option for Japan to regain four islands since Russia is stronger and Japan weaker, but joint economic development will boost Japan’s influence on the two larger islands, making the deal “2 + alpha” after all, with prospects that these will become islands shared in common or even go to Japan, suggests Sato, who concludes by stressing that Japan and Russia at a time of dramatic change in Northeast Asia will serve together as a counterbalance, while Abe achieves an historic result. Togo insists that “transfer” means Japan gets sovereignty over two islands as it also gets a special economic zone on the other two, praising the results of the November 14 Singapore summit for accelerating the process on the agreed basis of the 1956 bilateral treaty. Suzuki too stresses that this is “2 + alpha,” turning a new page in history. He claims that it will satisfy the displaced Japanese residents who can freely travel to the islands and go to fish in their waters.

Critics of Abe’s diplomacy raise the following points: if realized this would be “2 – alpha” setting aside illusions about Japan’s future impact on the two big islands and recognizing restrictions to be put by Russia on the two islands that could be transferred, while Japan pays an economic price; anticipated geopolitical bonds between Tokyo and Moscow are a pipedream, defying the secure ties of each to powers on the pathway to regional polarization; Moscow’s antagonism toward the current world order and recent attacks against it are being ignored; Putin is likely to impose conditions on the transfer of two islands difficult for Japan to meet after he secures gains from the ongoing diplomacy; Russia has failed to meet expectations on a legal framework for joint economic development or conditions for encouraging investments as well as other hopes raised since Abe started wooing Putin, and idealism about Putin’s next steps is not warranted; and the bilateral national identity gap on countless issues from North Korea to a “free and open Indo-Pacific” is unbridgeable. Abe may seek a victory for his legacy, but there is little to gain even if two small islands are returned in some fashion on terms Russia dictates, marked by Japanese idealism based on its illusions about the nature of Russia.

The tightening Sino-Russian relationship, reported in Japanese press, defied optimism about the impact of Abe-Putin talks. The two offered parallel criticism of the United States at the United Nations in September. They each assertively challenged the international order Abe has claimed to defend. Momentous transformation in regional security order through Abe’s diplomacy without coordination with the United States—indeed, at odds with the verdict in the West on Russia’s challenge to it—is nothing but an illusion, as Mainichi editorialized on November 16. On December 3 Asahi reported on the latest Russian outrage to Ukraine in the Kerch Strait and asked how Japan, under such conditions, could persuade the United States as its talks with Russia are now entering a slippery slope. That same day Sankei bluntly asserted in an editorial that Putin could not be trusted, citing his military thrust, including in Ukraine, or the next day, that one should not overlook the hardline views of Foreign Minister Lavrov, now in charge of bilateral talks. Sankei on October 30 had carried Hakamada Shigeki’s Seiron column stressing Putin’s Valdai remarks about building trust with Japan and warning that they are aimed at eliminating sanctions just as Putin is taking further action against the international order through violations of territorial norms parallel to what Moscow had done in 1945. Kawato Akio in Newsweek December 11 contrasted a supportive 1990s international environment for a Japan-Russia deal with a negative atmosphere amidst Putin’s expansionism with danger for Japan-US relations. In Yomiuri on October 19 Miyake Kunihiko warned of a new cold war beginning with Russia and China joined together against the United States—as in seeking removal of US troops from Korea—and called on Japan to stand behind the international order. Kamiya Matake in the December 6 Seiron wrote that Abe needs to continue to be clever in the face of Trump’s disorderly leadership of the international order in dealing with China and Russia’s anti-democratic assault on it, including Russia’s actions by a strong power preying on weaker states, instead of demonstrating opportunism to Russia that could call into question Tokyo’s position on territorial disputes with Beijing and Seoul. Japan’s geopolitical logic for reaching a breakthrough with Russia was coming under intensified criticism from the left and the right at the end of 2018.