Japan’s Abe Seeks Energy, Trade in Russia, Middle East

The Japanese prime minister hopes to boost economic growth ahead of July’s election.

Prime Minister Shinzō Abe of Japan, accompanied by more than one hundred business executives, is in the middle of a four nation trip intended to secure much needed energy resources and to bolster trade. His itinerary underlines the quandary Japan faces as it grapples with finding alternative energy sources while its nuclear plants remain idle since the 2011 Fukushima power plant disaster.

Abe’s first stop was Russia. The two countries acknowledged in a joint statement that relations remained “abnormal” in the face of an unsigned bilateral peace treaty officially ending World War II. Abe and Russian president Vladimir Putin instructed their foreign ministries to revisit the issue and also find ways to improve Japanese-Russian relations in general.

The major impediment preventing a treaty from being signed has been the status of the four islands situated north of Japan’s Hokkaido and south of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula that the Soviet Union took in 1945 during the final days of the war. Japan refers to these islands as its Northern Territories while they are known in Russia as the Southern Kurils. The islands are surrounded by rich fishing grounds and believed to posses oil and natural gas deposits offshore.

The issue was left unresolved in the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration which restored relations. At the time, Japan rejected an offer to return two of the four southernmost islands closest to it as inadequate by the Soviets.

Both sides seem ready to improve relations nevertheless. Japan is eager to increase its imports of Russian oil and gas since its nuclear plants are offline and Russia continues to be interested in Japanese technological knowhow to revitalize its economy.

Russia views China’s rise with trepidation and mistrust, despite the apparent improvement of Sino-Russian relations in the past decade. In particular, Russia is worried that China’s insatiable energy appetite could mean growing influence in Russia’s sparsely populated but resource rich eastern Siberia. And Russia remains somewhat wary of China’s energy based relations with former Soviet republics in Central Asia, a region that Russia continues to view as a sphere of influence.

Japan has been locked in a dispute with China over the Senkakus or Diaoyu Islands. Both sides claim the uninhabited rocks as their territory and have vowed to defend their sovereignty in the face ever more dangerous incursions between Chinese and Japanese vessels in the area.

After Russia, Abe’s delegation travels to the Middle East where it will visit Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Japan has been increasingly dependent on both for petroleum imports since sanctions prohibit it from buying oil from Iran.

Abe’s final stop will be in Turkey where Japanese industry is a finalist with France to build a $22 billion nuclear power plant on the nation’s Black Sea coast.

Japan is also financing the massive Bosphorus Rail Tube Crossing project in Turkey, linking the Asian and European sides of Istanbul by rail. The first phase of the project is expected to be completed this year.

Abe’s trip should be considered in the context of his drive to stimulate the Japanese economy. He seeks growth to beat inflation, preferably before upper house elections in July when his Liberal Democratic Party could win control of the entire legislature.