Thursday, February 26, 2009

Aso Meets Obama, Medvedev. What Gives?

There’s little that can be settled between someone with a four-year lease on power with a one-off extension option for the landlord and another guy who faces near-certain eviction in less than seven months. No to worry though; there are no purely bilateral issues of major concern, and the global financial/economic crisis is…well, global. At the regional level, Futenma, Guam, and the rest of the U.S. troop realignment issues are what they are (where Ozawa’s latest statements are far more interesting and somewhat alarming, given the political winds), and North Korea is…North Korea, the pending Taepodon 2 “satellite” launch notwithstanding. So Prime Minister Aso took the twelve-hour flight to Washington, had a one-hour get-together (half that, really, if you consider the interpretation) with President Obama—no lunch, no press conference—and took the flight back home; the clock started running again on the embattled Prime Minister as if nothing had happened.

The only effect seems to have been to give the President of the United States a four-year pass against charges of Japan passing NTTIAWWT. Think of it as a follow-up to Hillary Clinton’s visit and talk with family members of abductees. Speaking of whom, it may only have been a scheduling glitch, but I think it was a clever idea to insert Indonesia between Japan and China and South Korea in her itinerary. By breaking the sequence with a country of clearly less political consequence, the U.S. government minimized the political significance of the order of the visits.

Russian President Medvedev made an offer his Japanese counterpart couldn’t refuse when he invited Aso to Sakhalin Island for the Wednesday launch of the LNG plant that will send 65% of its 9.8 million-ton annual production to Japan*. It should be good publicity, foreign and domestic, for the Kremlin in the face of issues with Ukraine and serious knock-on effects on Western European customers, all of it unfolding within a broader, alarming context of plummeting energy prices. Aso’s visit also provides political closure to an obscure but not insignificant legal issue regarding the final status of Sakhalin Island. The USSR never signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, under which Japan gave up sovereignty over what was then a strategically significant but barely habitable piece of real estate, along with the Kurile Islands. So Sakhalin (and the Kurile Islands) must be part of the final bilateral treaty that will settle all issues including the four islands most commonly referred to as the Northern Territories. It was a bargaining chip, albeit very minor. Aso’s visit laid that issue to rest.

In return, Aso got a promise of a May visit by Prime Minister Putin and a pledge to settle the issue within “our generation”, which the Japanese side is spinning as “during the current administrations.” The last point should be alarming to Japanese nationalists; Russia has never shown any hint of any intention to give up anything more than the two near-most (from the Japanese perspective) and smallest islands except in President Yeltsin’s weakest moments—only a hint at that, mind you—and Putin’s Russia has gone some ways in reverting to its old empirical ways since then. Meanwhile, Aso as Foreign Minister all but gave away his own game plan when he talked about splitting the islands in half by area—giving Japan the three smaller islands and a significant portion of the fourth—before there was any inkling that negotiation were going to start any time soon. At bottom, actually, is Aso’s moderate pragmatism—something most Western observers miss because of his sometimes nationalistic pronouncements—but it certainly won’t help him with a significant portion of his support from the LDP right.

* The rest goes to South Korea and the U.S.

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