15.05.2016 Author: Vladimir Terehov

European Tour of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

345345444The European tour of Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, which took place from 2 to 6 May, consisted of two parts. The first part included visits to Italy and France, Germany and the UK, that is, four of the leading EU members, as well as a visit to the Union headquarters. The second was a visit to Russia where talks were held with President V.V. Putin in an informal setting in Sochi.

There is no point in engaging in speculation about which of these parts had a greater importance for Japan and its Prime Minister. In the course of conversations with European leaders and Russian President, Abe dealt for the most part with different (but equally important for the country) issues.

During the Western European part of the tour his interests lay with three main issues: the completion of talks with the EU on the subject of a bilateral free trade agreement that have been ongoing since April 2013, the likelihood of EU’s integrity on the eve of the referendum in the UK, and the final check that the four members of the upcoming summit of G-7 are on the same page.

The negotiations on the first item were meant to be completed before the end of 2015 by the signing of the respective document. Now, however, during the meeting with Abe, the EU leaders in Brussels shifted the date by a year and, according to the EU president Donald Tusk, it will be timed to coincide with the next Japan and the EU Summit, which will take place in the second half of the year.

In London, Abe made a speech as an outright lobbyist of the UK’s membership in the EU. Addressing the British electorate that will vote either yes or no to whether or not the country will stay in the EU in the upcoming referendum on June 23, he voiced unequivocal warnings. In form they were no less harsh than those that were voiced by Barack Obama two weeks earlier during a working visit to the UK, which is hardly surprising, particularly given the policy ties between Washington and Tokyo.

At the meeting with journalists, Abe, in particular, said: “Japan very clearly would prefer Britain to remain within the EU. Many Japanese companies do business here because for them the UK is a gateway to the EU”. He also considered it relevant to recall that more than a thousand Japanese companies in Britain employ about 140 thousand people.

Concerning the issue of the forthcoming G-7 summit, it is of special relevance to Abe due to the fact that this time the leaders of the “Big Seven” will meet in Japan. Although the agenda, as well as the outcome documents, have apparently, already been formulated in the course of negotiations at the ministerial level, the final alignment of the texts, as well as making “finishing touches”, undoubtedly occupied an important place in the course of Abe’s talks with his European counterparts.

Abe discussed specific issues with each of the European partners too. For example, Angela Merkel, a diehard opponent of pumping money into the world’s leading economies, once again expressed her disapproval of such measures that Abe’s Government has been taking for four years in a row to stimulate the stagnant Japanese economy. For the latter, this conversation, as well as the talks with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi apparently had an exploratory character as the financial policy of the member states and the state of the global economy will be one of the priority issues at the upcoming G-7 meeting.

No less attention will be paid to the terrorist threat and cooperation efforts of the G-7 members to parry it. This topic was discussed in the conversation between Abe and French President Francois Hollande.

The content of the three-hour talks between the Prime Minister of Japan and the Russian president in Sochi can only be judged by the sparse statements made by official representatives of both countries and the comments of news agencies. It bears remembering that two years ago the parties agreed not to make the complex process of resolving of the extremely sensitive “Northern Territories issue” and the matter of a bilateral peace treaty public.

Until recently, the opinion that this particular problem is the major obstacle to substantial expansion of economic relations with Russia has been dominant in Japan. However, in recent months, Abe’s rhetoric has shown certain shifts and the desire to compromise, which affected the outcome of the Sochi talks. Now we can see that the problem resolution processes and the development of Japanese-Russian relations run in parallel. That in itself is a qualitative and positive change in the long-term process of bilateral negotiations.

It is a popular opinion that the motivation behind these changes are part of the tactics of the political struggle waged by the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) and its leader Abe on the eve of the upcoming elections to the Japanese Parliament’s upper chamber in the summer this year.

This motif can actually be observed. Against the background of continuing economic stagnation, the LDP and the current cabinet are in dire need of demonstrating at least some success. And the progress in resolving “the Northern Territories issue” can be presented as such to the electorate.

However, in the author’s opinion, the main motive out of those mentioned extends far beyond the scope of this problem and is much more complex and fundamental. The main thing is the increased significance of the Russian factor in the backdrop of the general trend towards aggravation of the situation in East Asia. This trend is accompanied by increased “neo-isolationist” trends in the US and the continued expansion of China’s role in the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.

Both leading global players, the United States and China, were invisibly present at all the negotiating tables, attended by the Japanese prime minister during the current European tour. It simply could not be any other way, taking into account the complex and contradictory interweaving of interests of all stakeholders in the new global political game, which has been unravelling since the end of the Cold War.

None of the global players has absolute freedom of action, which would allow them to move with no regard for other players. Views on the complete dependence (or even “puppet nature”) of Japan’s (and Germany’s) foreign policy on the United States seem superficial.

With the rising tensions in East Asia, Japan has as much interest as the United States in the preservation and strengthening of the Japan-US military-political alliance. That is why Donald Trump’s “neo-isolationist” rhetoric is taken with such caution. And that is also why Abe is forced to look to Washington in the process of building relations with the EU and Russia.

It is out of the question that Japan is a “puppet”. The illustration in the Chinese Global Times depicting a hand with the American flag on the sleeve holding Abe by the leg (heading to a meeting with Vladimir Putin), is more entertaining than it is true to the real situation.

For a more accurate depiction, it should have had a hand with the Japanese flag (as well as the Australian, Vietnamese, Filipino, Indian and some other states’ symbols) on the cuff holding “uncle Sam” by the leg, who in the past years has tried to hotfoot it from the frontline of confrontation with China. (Contrary to the semantic content of the declaration of its “Pivot to Asia” in American foreign policy.)

In turn, Russia cannot develop relations with Japan without considering the seriousness of the problems in Sino-Japanese relations, as well as the fact that China is one of the main political and economic partners of the Russian Federation, who we share a 4 thousand km border with.

Both Tokyo and Moscow’s awareness of the importance of the context that might seem to lay beyond the format of bilateral relations should be the key to their successful development that is to the benefit and not aggravation of the situation in North Eastern Asia.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the Asia-Pacific region, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”