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Japan's Approach to the G7 Ise-Shima Summit

Liz Noh
G7 Research Group
March 8, 2016

In just a few months, Japan will host the G7 summit for the first time since 2008. Much has happened in Japan since then, including several changes in leadership. The current prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has been in office for more than three years, almost a record in recent Japanese politics. Topping the agenda at the Ise-Shima Summit will likely be the global economy and terrorism in light of recent events. But as chair of the G7, Abe will probably focus on other matters close to home — Russia and regional security in Asia.

In 1998, Russia became a member and the G7 became the G8. However, Russia was suspended from the G8 in 2014 because of its military actions in Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea. Russia was to host the summit the same year, but that meeting was quickly moved to Brussels, headquarters of the European Union. There are still concerns among the G7 about Russia because of its continued involvement in Ukraine and now in Syria.

But in a surprising move in January, soon after Japan assumed the 2016 G7 presidency, Abe suggested bringing Russia back into the G7 fold. It seems odd, considering Japan had resisted Russia joining the G7 in the first place. But things have changed. Now Russia seems to have an unlikely ally in Japan.

"As chair of the G7, I need to seek solutions regarding the stability of the region as well as the whole world ... I believe appropriate dialogue with Russia, appropriate dialogue with President Putin is very important. We need the constructive engagement of Russia," Abe told the Financial Times in January, referring to the situation in the Middle East, Syria and ISIS.

In fact, Abe hopes to meet with Putin in Russia in early May. High-level talks between Tokyo and Moscow are laying the groundwork, and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will travel to Japan in April to discuss the details. Abe will meet with his G7 counterparts in Europe prior to the G7 summit, and stop over in Sochi for talks with Putin on the way home. That meeting could pave the way for Putin to visit Japan sometime this year.

But not everybody is applauding the idea of Abe meeting Putin. In a recent phone conversation, U.S. president Barack Obama urged Abe to postpone his visit until after the G7 summit. Abe said that he is going ahead with his plans because Japan and Russia have important issues to resolve.

Abe is referring to Japan's long-standing dispute with Russia over the Northern Territories, as Japan calls them, or the Kuril Islands as Russia labels them. World War II ended over 70 years ago, but the two countries still do not have a peace treaty — although they have had diplomatic relations since 1956. Abe and Putin both agree that this situation is "abnormal."

To his credit, Abe has been trying to improve relations with Russia since taking office in December 2012, and has been pushing for talks to resolve the territorial dispute so that Japan and Russia can sign a peace treaty. But a resolution may not be so easy. The Russian foreign minister has said that signing a peace treaty is not "synonymous" with a solution to the territorial dispute.

Nevertheless, it would be quite an achievement for Abe to announce to his G7 counterparts that Japan and Russia will finally sign a peace treaty. Japan could also take credit for bringing Russia back into the G7. But even if that does not happen, Abe will not lose face for trying.

More importantly, reaching out to Russia is a strategic move for Japan. Japan does not have many friends in the neighbourhood. Its relations with South Korea and China have been strained due to historical baggage. In recent years, those relations have plunged to an all-time low, particularly because of the Abe government's nationalistic stance. So having Russia as an ally could be helpful in dealing with China's increasing strength and a volatile North Korea.

Regional Security

When Abe and his fellow G7 leaders met in Elmau, Germany, in June 2015, tensions ran high in Asia with territorial disputes and China flexing its muscle in the region. The situation has not improved since then.

In mid February, China deployed surface-to-air missile launchers on the disputed territory of Woody Island in the South China Sea between China, Taiwan and Vietnam. Vietnamese premier Nguyen Tan Dung quickly called for the United States to play a larger role in the demilitarization of the South China Sea.

Japan also has an ongoing dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands/Diaoyudao Islands in the East China Sea.

Japan will also likely focus on North Korea. While the United States, United Kingdom and Europe are plagued with terrorism, the conflict in Syria and the ensuing flood of refugees, North Korea poses an immediate threat to Japan and the rest of Asia. The volatile regime launched another missile in February and conducted its fourth nuclear test in January.

North Korea has been a problem for more than 20 years. It has long threatened to punish Japan and turn Seoul into "a sea of fire." It has violated the Agreed Framework, which it signed with the United States in 1994 to stop its nuclear ambitions. The Six Party Talks, which started in 2003, have been in limbo since North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and again in 2009, and admitted to having a secret uranium enrichment program all along.

North Korea has also launched several short- and long-range missiles since 1993. Some came very close to Japan — which now has one of the most sophisticated missile defence system, thanks to the help of the United States. By 2018, Japan will probably produce a new generation of interceptors developed jointly with the Americans.

South Korea is nervous too, especially with Seoul being so close to Pyongyang. South Korea is discussing deploying its own missile defence system with the United States.

The situation in Asia thus remains tense. Countries are nervous and want to arm themselves against China, North Korea or both. Abe will look for G7 support and will have few problems getting it, although it will not be substantial. The G7 will likely condemn China and North Korea and call for restraint.

The Economy and Domestic Issues

Not so long ago Japan was proclaiming its economic comeback. Yet the latest figures show otherwise, despite fiscal stimulus programs and quantitative easing under Abenomics, Shinzo Abe's economic policy. Japan's economy shrank again in the fourth quarter of 2015.

The G7 leaders will not be too hard on Japan. The world economy is slowing down and other countries are struggling too. Japan's problem is chronic stagnation, ongoing for 20 years, exacerbated by deflation and a shrinking domestic market. Deep structural reforms beyond Abenomics are needed.

Still, not enough people in Japan are suffering, which is why Abe has little to worry about even on the domestic front. His government is enjoying a 52 percent approval rate, down only four points from January, according to polls in February by Yomiuri Shimbun. A similar poll conducted by Asahi Shimbun showed a 40 percent approval rate, down two points.

So far so good, but an election is expected this summer. Half the 242 seats in the Diet Upper House will be up for election. Abe's Liberal Democratic Party currently has 134 seats with its coalition partner the New Komeito. A two-thirds majority win would strengthen their position. Abe will have to impress upon the Japanese people that he and the LDP remain the best choice to run the country.

So on May 26 and 27, in the seaside resort town of Shima, amidst the picturesque scenery and sacred Shinto shrines, the Japanese people will be able to see on national television their leader welcoming the G7 leaders, discussing matters of global importance with them and making Japan look good in the eyes of the world.

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Liz NohLiz Noh has been a member of the G7 and G8 Research Group since 1995, specializing in Japan and East Asia. She has attended ten G7/8 summits. She is an award-winning journalist with more than 15 years' experience in print and broadcast media. She was a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, and won an Amnesty International Media Award in 2004 for "North Korea: The Hidden Gulag," a radio documentary that she produced. She also lived and worked in Tokyo for five years, where she was an editor for NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, and Kyodo News.

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