- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Even as the Obama administration seeks to forge a united front with its allies against Russia, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday in what many see as the latest twist to Tokyo’s balancing act between Moscow and Washington.

The unofficial summit in the Black Sea resort of Sochi is expected to revolve around a host of sensitive issues, including Japan’s growing desire for Russian natural gas and ways the two nations might work together to counter China’s rising assertiveness in Asia.

As the men prepare to meet, there is growing speculation over the extent to which the U.S. and other Western powers can rely on Tokyo’s support — economically and militarily — to contain Mr. Putin and his pressure campaign against smaller nations on Russia’s periphery.

While Japan is widely seen to be in lockstep with Washington on issues related to China and North Korea, Tokyo is pursuing its own policy vis-a-vis Russia, said Shihoko Goto, a senior associate for northeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“When it comes to Russia, Japan is not going to side automatically with the United States,” Ms. Goto said in an interview Wednesday. “There are shades of gray, and the U.S. and Japan are not necessarily seeing eye to eye.”

The Obama administration has sought to downplay the appearance of conflict ahead of the Abe-Putin meeting.

“Japan can have close relations with us and close relations with Russia,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner said last month. “It shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.”

But Japan’s willingness to join in U.S.-led sanctions over Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula — which could be on the agenda at the Group of Seven summit Mr. Abe is hosting later this month — is complicated by Tokyo’s desire to deal with its own slate of bilateral issues with Moscow.

Chief among those issues, Ms. Goto said, is a decades-old dispute over Japan’s “Northern Territories” — a strip of islets that the Soviet Union seized in the final days of World War II.

The two sides signed the 1956 Joint Declaration agreeing to transfer the territories to Japan after a peace treaty. Nearly 60 years later, there is no official peace treaty.

“Japan and Russia are officially still at war,” said Ms. Goto. “With regard to this dispute, there hasn’t ever been an official end to conflict.”

Many see Mr. Abe eager to make progress on the island issue, even if it means upsetting Washington and its allies.

Speculation on the matter surged this week with reports that the Japanese prime minister brushed off an informal invitation last year from German Chancellor Angela Merkel for Japan to join NATO.

Ms. Merkel made the surprise offer during a March 2015 dinner with Mr. Abe in Tokyo, according to Japan News. The German chancellor even said she could persuade British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande to welcome Tokyo into the alliance.

Mr. Abe reportedly balked, in part because such a move could derail Tokyo’s negotiations with Moscow over the disputed territories.

The Abe government is also eager to strengthen economic and energy ties with Russia as Japan searches for ways to diversify its energy sources away from nuclear power.

Russia has provided Japan with an increasing flow of natural gas in recent years, although talk of a pipeline to connect the two nations has largely stalled.

Russian officials have played down talk of a major breakthrough on the territories issue during the Sochi meeting.

“It is hardly possible to expect imminent and serious progress, because this topic is pretty sensitive and it demands a very scrupulous, long and, what is more important, consistent work at the level of experts,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a conference call with reporters, according to the Reuters news agency.

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