Monday

29th May 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.

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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.

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