Inside China: Chagrined by Shinzo Abe’s Russia visit

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Japan is using “value diplomacy” to create the geopolitical encirclement of China, according to China’s state-run media.

That point was emphasized across the communist nation’s media spectrum as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe began a historic seven-day visit to Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

What makes China most wary of Mr. Abe’s trip is the first leg of his tour — Russia, a country of great consequence capable of tipping the volatile strategic balance in Northeast Asia.

Mr. Abe’s Moscow visit is the first by a Japanese prime minister in 10 years. For Japan, the visit to the Kremlin comes at a historic moment when China’s surging hostility toward Tokyo could potentially rebalance Japan’s traditionally frigid relationship with Russia.

Chinese state-run media didn’t hide Beijing’s dislike that the Abe visit poses a potential threat to the communist regime.

“An obvious feature of Abe’s foreign policy is to use his core belief in ‘value diplomacy’ — embracing countries that share values of ‘freedom, democracy, basic human rights and rule of law’ — to seek to encircle and put pressure on China,” said the Communist Party’s mouthpiece the Global Times in an April 28 article headlined “Abe’s visit to Russia is a naive attempt to contain China.”

Nevertheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin put out a red-carpet welcome for the Japanese delegation and held a much-publicized meeting with Mr. Abe at the Kremlin. It also did not escape Chinese media notice that Mr. Putin has been a lifelong enthusiast for the Japanese martial art form of judo.

What also heightens Chinese concern about Mr. Abe’s visit to Russia is the two countries’ ambitious program of joint energy projects that may undermine China’s vigorous pursuit of Russia’s abundant oil and gas resources.

Traveling with Mr. Abe is an entourage of more than 100 chief executives of Japan’s major corporations, including Toshiba, Mitsubishi, and key power and energy companies. In fact, the top agenda item for the meeting between Mr. Abe and Mr. Putin is energy cooperation between the two countries.

After the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant meltdown in 2011, Japan sought to dramatically reduce its reliance on nuclear power, something that prompted a sudden surge in interest in investing and developing oil and gas in Russia’s Far East regions.

Japan’s new energy demand from Russia fits well with Mr. Putin’s strategic policy of seeking more foreign investment to develop Russia’s eastern territories. Seeking Chinese cooperation is one obvious option, but limitations are also real, especially the risk of influx of Chinese illegal immigrants and potential nationalist backlash in both countries because of historical animosities in the region.

Japan thus is emerging as a preferred investor that not only has much better technology but also is more compliant with Russia’s balanced diplomatic approach to the Asia-Pacific region.

The thorniest issue between Russia and Japan, however, remains a monumental one: the dispute over the sovereign rights to four islands taken by the old Soviet Union at the end of World War II. Japan has demanded that Russia return the islands.

The intensity of mutual acrimony between Moscow and Tokyo reached a new high two years ago when then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev paid a personal visit to the disputed area, leading to a complete breakdown of diplomatic talks on the issue for the first time in many years.

Mr. Putin and Mr. Abe discussed the islands issue in Moscow, and the two leaders decided to resume diplomatic talks on the dispute. It is likely that Mr. Putin and Mr. Abe are willing to make some degree of compromise on the only major issue that is hindering the Moscow-Tokyo bilateral relationship.

Analysts believe a likely scenario might be that Russia will return two of the four islands to Japan as a compromise. The recent disclosure of a Soviet-era study by a renowned Russian historian confirmed that Japan might, in fact, be on firm legal grounds in seeking the return of at least two of the islands.

A related issue to the islands dispute is the signing of a peace treaty between Russia and Japan. Because of the islands row, Moscow and Tokyo never signed a formal peace treaty after World War II.

Mr. Abe and Mr. Putin made historic progress during their long talks. On Monday, Mr. Putin made an important announcement that Russia and Japan are committed to reaching a peace treaty for the first time since the end of the war 68 years ago.

Mr. Putting and Mr. Abe have ordered their foreign ministers to “intensify contacts for devising a mutually acceptable way of settling the problem” of the peace treaty.

Suddenly, to China’s chagrin, a renewed thaw of Moscow-Tokyo ties may fundamentally change the strategic ethos of Northeast Asia, and it is not necessarily to China’s liking.

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @yu_miles.

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