Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is stepping up his diplomacy. He has attended summit talks and international conferences in Russia, China, Laos, the United States and Cuba. He will have a summit meeting with Chinese and South Korean leaders in Japan and Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit Japan before the end of the year.
The prime minister refrained from frankly expressing his views on the wartime "comfort women" issue in the bilateral agreement struck between Japanese and South Korean foreign ministers late last year, paving the way for improving bilateral relations. The effects of the progress are reflected in various diplomatic scenes, including those addressing the North Korean issue.
Prime Minister Abe appears to have shifted his emphasis from ideologies to realistic strategies in his foreign policy.
Currently, Abe's diplomacy efforts prioritize responses to the North Korean situation. The prime minister devoted about half of his 15-minute speech at a recent U.N. General Assembly session to talking about the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear and missile development programs to the international community.
On the other hand, Abe only briefly talked with U.S. President Barack Obama instead of having official summit talks on the sidelines of a series of international conferences, highlighting a subtle distance between the two leaders.
How should Japan deal with the increasingly severe security environment surrounding the country, such as the North Korean situation and China's maritime advancement as the United States' influence on the international community has been declining? The prime minister is apparently trying to respond to the security environment by expanding his diplomatic relations with a wider diversity of countries instead of relying solely on the United States, although he regards the Japan-U.S. alliance as the core of Japan's diplomacy. In particular, Abe has been aggressively engaged in diplomacy toward Russia.
Tokyo's talks with Moscow over the Northern Territories issue have been deadlocked. Prime Minister Abe has opted for a new approach to his talks with Putin on the matter without sticking to Tokyo's conventional policy of resolving the issue of sovereignty over the four islands and then signing a peace treaty.
The prime minister is attaching particular importance to Japan's ties with Russia apparently because he is aiming to settle the territorial dispute while he is in office. More importantly, however, he appears to be worried that if Russia and China were to strengthen their alliance any further, it would have a negative impact on Japan's security.
Russia, which has been slapped with sanctions by Western countries over the Ukrainian issue, and China, which is resisting criticism from Japan and the United States over the South China Sea situation, are stepping up their alliance to counter pressure from Western countries and Japan. An excessive alliance between Beijing and Moscow would not be favorable for the international community's response to the North Korean situation.
However, concerns remain about Japan-Russia relations. Japan cannot accept Russia's unilateral annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in southern Ukraine from the standpoint of appealing for the rule of law in the South and East China seas. Furthermore, U.S. officials have expressed concern about Japan's attempt to strengthen its ties with Russia.
Strengthening Japan-Russia relations involves serious risks. However, Prime Minister Abe apparently believes that it is a challenge worth trying. Close attention should be focused on whether Abe's strategic diplomacy will prove successful.