Thursday

19th Jan 2017

Column / Crude World

Shinzo Abe's hot-tub diplomacy

  • Japan's PM Abe (l) has been pleading for a new approach to the island dispute in which he would host Putin (r) in a hot springs resort (Photo: kremlin.ru)

From 15-16 December Russian president Vladimir Putin will visit Japan. High on the agenda are talks with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on the status of the Kuril Islands, a group of islands annexed by the Soviet Union in the dying days of World War II.

Both Japan and Russia claim sovereignty over the islands and the dispute has prevented both countries from signing a peace treaty marking the end of the war.

Dear EUobserver reader

Subscribe now for unrestricted access to EUobserver.

Sign up for 30 days' free trial, no obligation. Full subscription only 15 € / month or 150 € / year.

  1. Unlimited access on desktop and mobile
  2. All premium articles, analysis, commentary and investigations
  3. EUobserver archives

EUobserver is the only independent news media covering EU affairs in Brussels and all 28 member states.

♡ We value your support.

If you already have an account click here to login.

In the run-up to the summit Abe has been pleading for a new approach to the island dispute in which he would host Putin in a hot springs resort of his home prefecture of Yamaguchi. The idea is that the onsen, as these hot springs are called, will soften up Putin’s mood leading to a territorial settlement favourable to Japan.

Two grown up men in a hot tub discussing world affairs, what’s not to like?

That, according to Abe at least, is the idea. In an ominous sign that Putin has no intention of being ‘softened up’ however is his positioning of advanced anti-ship missiles on the islands. At the end of the day, no matter how hot the tub will be, Abe is unlikely to get what he is bargaining for.

Europe’s leaders would be wise to take a cue from Abe’s failing jacuzzi diplomacy in the making when they plead for a new arms-control agreement with Russia.

Let’s talk, but never mind the missiles

On 22 November news spread that Russia had moved Bastion and Bal anti-ship missiles to the Kurils. The missiles, with a range of 300km, are a stern warning to the Japanese to not get any crazy ideas about the island group.

A day after the announcement Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said with a sense of irony that the move should not spoil the atmosphere ahead of Vladimir’s visit.

Japan stated it would consider appropriate measures in response to the Russian missile systems. Perhaps Abe will crank up the hot tub a notch or two? Whatever the "appropriate measures" by Tokyo, the Russian motive for doing this is clear: deliberately raise or lower the stakes in the run-up to important talks so that your counterpart knows perfectly well what the deal is.

What is more, it is a favoured recipe. We have witnessed this tactic repeatedly in the case of Ukraine and Syria. If there was something to gain from stoking more conflict, Russia stepped up its support for its proxies in the Donbass.

With the ink on the Minsk II ceasefire agreement barely dry, the push to conquer the strategic town of Debaltseve before the agreement entered into force was a case in point.

Similarly, when European leaders gathered in Brussels in late October to discuss whether or not to slap additional sanctions on Moscow for its bombardment of Aleppo, Russia strategically announced a "humanitarian pause" in the Syrian city on the exact day that the meeting took place. The move proved successful as Italy resisted a push for more sanctions.

Why Europe should hold firm

What Japan’s experience with the Russian missiles tells us is that Russia’s president makes up his own rules as to how the game is played. The belief that Putin is somehow malleable and one can come to terms with him has been proven wrong countless of times.

Accommodate the Kremlin’s behaviour and you will always be trailing by a goal in the 89th minute of the game. A worrying sign in this respect is the news that Germany and 15 other countries are pleading for a new arms-control agreement with Moscow. The countries claim more dialogue is needed to prevent an arms race in Europe after Russia’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Although dialogue is preferred over not talking at all, the key lies in the kind of message that you send. You simply do not offer a fresh deal to a party that has torn up every arms control agreement that was there in the first place. It invites the offender to replicate its behaviour.

It is akin to offering the arsonist who just set fire to your house an arrangement to have greater transparency on gasoline stocks so that you might be able to guess how large the next fire will be.

Put differently, European leaders would do well to monitor Shinzo Abe’s Onsen Summit closely and come to the conclusion that no matter how friendly and accommodating you try to be, Putin will make up his own rules in the face of perceived weakness. By calling for a fresh agreement European leaders effectively invite Russia’s president to rewrite the rulebook once again.

The Crude World monthly column on Eurasian (energy) security and power politics in Europe’s eastern neighbourhood is written by Sijbren de Jong, a strategic analyst with The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS), specialised in Eurasian (energy) security and the EU’s relations with Russia and the former Soviet Union.

Opinion

The 89ers and the battle against populism

It falls to the Europeans who were born around 1989 and grew up in a peaceful Europe to build a fresh new vision for the EU that transcends the ideological, educational and national cleavages of the past.

News in Brief

  1. Outgoing US vice-president warns Europe on Russia
  2. German far-right party calls for end to WWII guilt
  3. First Chinese freight train arrives in Europe
  4. Europe has no vision, says Italian minister
  5. Juncker has 'slight doubts' on his group's convention idea
  6. EU parliament spat changes nothing, says Juncker
  7. German elections likely on 24 September
  8. Maltese PM announces plan for Brexit summit

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Caritas EuropaEU States to Join Pope Francis’s Appeal to Care for Migrant Children
  2. UNICEFNumber of Unaccompanied Children Arriving by sea to Italy Doubles in 2016
  3. Nordic Council of Ministers"Nordic Matters" Help Forge Closer Bonds Between the UK and the Nordic Region
  4. Computers, Privacy & Data ProtectionThe age of Intelligent Machines: join the Conference on 25-27 January 2017
  5. Martens CentreNo Better way to Lift Your Monday Blues Than to Gloss Over our Political Cartoons
  6. Dialogue PlatformThe Gulen Movement: An Islamic Response to Terror as a Global Challenge
  7. European Free AllianceMinority Rights and Autonomy are a European Normality
  8. Swedish EnterprisesHow to Create EU Competitiveness Post-Brexit? Seminar on January 24th
  9. European Jewish CongressSchulz to be Awarded the European Medal for Tolerance for his Stand Against Populism
  10. Nordic Council of Ministers"Adventures in Moominland" Kick Off Nordic Matters Festival in London
  11. PLATO15 Fully-Funded PhDs Across Europe on the Post-Crisis Legitimacy of the EU - Apply Now!
  12. Dialogue PlatformInterview: Fethullah Gulen Condemns Assassination of Russian Ambassador to Turkey

Latest News

  1. EP deal could help Tusk keep Council job
  2. UN struggles to monitor fate of readmitted Syrians in Turkey
  3. European space chief: Moon village is 'more or less a fact'
  4. May's speech was not a war declaration, Malta says
  5. EU must find backbone to survive in Trump's world
  6. Moldova turns from EU to Russia
  7. Kerry to EU: Believe in yourself
  8. EU parliament swerves right with Tajani's election