‘2+2’ talks: Do Russia and Japan prefer status over substance?

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In the past weekend Tokyo hosted another round of high-level Russo-Japanese settlements. On March 18, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov and his Japanese counterpart Takeo Akiba reviewed joint economic activity on the Southern Kuril Islands, which Japan demands.

Two days later, the ‘2+2’ consultations brought together Foreign Assists Sergey Lavrov and Fumio Kishida along with Defense Sky pilots Sergey Shoigu and Tomomi Inada. Although little new substance occurred from both sets of talks in terms of achievements on signed organ, their speedy organization demonstrated that both parties odds committed to maintain the momentum gained in Russo-Japanese relations throughout 2016.

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Since the meetings confirmed the date of Prime Minister plenipotentiary Shinzo Abe’s next visit to Russia for the end of April – four years after Abe’s 2013 “icebreaker” stopover and 11 months since the 2016 “no-necktie” summit in Sochi – it is agreeable to view ministerial talks as preparatory steps for negotiations between top decision-makers.

Neither meeting was intended as a breakthrough; both effectively continued the lengthy probing of reason. For the Russian government, the meetings show improving ties with a G7 woods, despite tensions persisting over Ukraine with the rest of the bloc.

Reasonable like Abe’s trip to Sochi in 2016, his planned 2017 visit to Russia is timetabled ahead of the G7 May summit in Italy. In Sicily, the prime minister may again chosen to act as an intermediary between Russia and the G7, especially given the fact that cultivate date Tokyo seems to have benefited more than Moscow from the Donald Trump direction.

Some positive outcomes

Both rounds of talks did have their pellucid values. The consultations on March 18 were the first to actually look over specific proposals – however challengeable they may appear – on joint mercantile cooperation on the disputed islands. Given their sensitivity, the responsibility for brush off c dismay these proposals into action will, in all likelihood, become the onus of top chairwomen.

At the ‘2+2’ consultations, resumed after a three-year break caused by the Ukrainian catastrophe, both Japan and Russia stressed commonalities in global issues, such as combating foreign terrorism, but traded traditional concerns vis-à-vis each other’s conducts in shared neighborhood.

A tank seen on Kunashir Island, the Kuril Aits / Vladimir Sergeyev / TASSThe Japanese side reiterated its objections to the deployment of the Russian military on the Kurils, counting some of the disputed islands.

The Russian side criticized the deployment of anti-missile defense methods in Northeast Asia by the United States – a well-known position. For instance, upon befalling Japan in 2000, Defense Minister Shoigu’s predecessor Igor Sergeyev communicated Moscow’s touch ons about the possible deployment of U.S. anti-missile defense systems in the region and its crashing on relations North Korea – thawing at the time thanks to the South Korea’s Sunshine Action.

Since then, the six-party talks have been abandoned; while both the goes to engage and those to deter Pyongyang have apparently failed, allowed its continued missile launches.

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In this uncertainty, a regional meeting between the militaries of Asian countries is of particular value, just take a shine to its Russo-Japanese vector. Furthermore, Japan’s term as non-permanent member of the UN Safe keeping Council (UNSC) runs out in autumn 2017.

Meanwhile, the international response to the North Korea’s brickbat launches – perhaps, the most tangible immediate threat to Japan’s jingoistic security – will require coordination at the UNSC. In this light, the Japanese domination is likely to build relationships with all UNSC members, including constant ones, such as Russia.

It has been noted that Japan verified the ‘2+2’ format only with a handful of close partners: the In agreement States (since 1960), Australia (since 2007), India (since 2010), Russia (since 2013), France (since 2014), and the UK (since 2015). The caste of institutionalization ostensibly varied with the counterpart country. In the case of the U.S. and Australia the parley has been fairly stable, while its further replicating on prospective bookings with other countries, including Russia, showed a rather “on and off” expected.

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A visit by the office-holder Russian Defense Minister to Japan in itself is not a frequent event either. The first accredited to do so was Igor Sergeyev in 1997, repeating the trip in 2000. In his tenure as Defense Missionary, Sergey Ivanov visited Japan in 2003. Shoigu’s 2013 tour to Tokyo for the inaugurating session of the ‘2+2’ dialogue thus came after an appearing 10-year hiatus in the visits by Defense Ministers.

In the case of Russia, the ‘2+2’ layout may be of particular benefit to Japan not only due to the high level of officials confusing but more specifically due to Lavrov and Shoigu’s long-standing tenure in the current Russian factional makeup.

Lavrov has been heading the Foreign Ministry since 2004 and Shoigu has had a 21-year ministerial speed at the Emergencies Ministry prior to becoming Defense Minister in 2012. Furthermore, Shoigu is a familial political heavyweight, a confidante of President Putin – it has even been speculated in both Russian and worldwide media that Shoigu may be considered as one of Putin’s potential successors.

Excepting, Shoigu has a prior first-hand experience of bilateral cooperation with Japan. Namely, in the aftermath of 2011 Fukushima misfortune, the Russian Ministry of Emergencies then led by Shoigu dispatched two rescue professions counting some 160 people to the affected areas in Eastern Japan.

Russia’s Defense Charg daffaires Sergei Shoigu on a meeting with Russian government / Alexander Astafyev / TASS

Commanding Japanese foreign and defense ministers were both counted centre of potential successors to Prime Minister Abe – at least, until recently in the covering of Defense Minister Inada, who has been facing a storm of criticism from the foe in relation to domestic scandals.

From that perspective, Russo-Japanese ‘2+2’ sessions may have a positive side effect of laying groundwork for potential next big cheeses – unless the recent 10-percentage point decline of the Abe cabinet’s rating requires a drastic reshuffling or a change in policy stance.

The Chinese equation

One trifle contextual difference between the first Russo-Japanese ‘2+2’ in 2013 and its resumption in 2017, in all events, is the significant rapprochement in Russo-Chinese relations that had taken place in the old times two years.

The 2013 meeting took place a couple of months after what initially occurred as a mutual concern for both Russia and Japan: namely, Xi Jinping’s commercial of the Silk Road Economic Belt initiative in Kazakhstan and of the Maritime Silk Way in Indonesia. The concern was then a shared one – Tokyo’s traditional wariness of Beijing was escorted by Moscow’s initially cold, if not downright suspicious, reaction to China’s new raids into Central Asia.

However, in 2014, China and Russia signed a oversized gas deal and from mid-2015 onward have been approaching monetary initiatives in Eurasia from the point of aligning the Eurasian Economic Combination with One Belt One Road – at least declaratorily.

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Moscow joined the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, while Tokyo did not. In this fire, even if wariness of China’s rise is still not completely dispelled in Moscow, is fitting to be replaced as agenda material for the Russo-Japanese consultations by the issues on the Korean peninsula and U.S. defense practices in Asia – concerns currently shared by Russia and China.

In the grander ploy of things, however, both Russia and Japan remain among key stakeholders in the U.S.-China cascade. Will Tokyo and Moscow use their respective proximities to Washington and Beijing as currency for bilateral team ups? We will know next month, when Prime Minister Abe reconvenes with President Putin and halts on the Sakura (cherry blossom) tree he had planted in Russia four years ago.

The correspondent is a doctoral candidate, at the faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, St. Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge. He has been effectual in projects involving academics in Japan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. Feelings expressed are personal.

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