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Trump, Putin, and the Asia-Pacific

Deputies of the Russian State Duma celebrated the victory of Donald Trump in the presidential election with applause. Even six months ago, a YouGov poll of 20,000 adults from each of the G20 nations showed that Russia was the only country where people favored Donald Trump as the their presidential pick. Many observers can’t understand why, but the support was not accidental?

Throughout the campaign, in speeches, debates, interviews and personally, Trump repeatedly referred to the Russian President and Russia positively. Establishing friendly relations between the two largest nuclear powers in the world, the United States and Russia, is important. And, thank God, Trump and Putin are aware of the need to establish friendly relations. Perhaps that is why they are patriots who share worldviews and mutual sympathy.

In July 2015, with the declared intent to run for the US presidency, Trump said, “I think I will be fine to get along with Vladimir Putin. I just think so.” In another instance he defended the Russian President. In an interview with MSNBC, a journalist said that Putin was allegedly killing journalists and Trump replied, “He runs his country and he is still the leader, not the fact that in our country. I think our country has too many who kill,” he added. In April 2016, Trump said, “If we can make our country such a wonderful thing as to get along with Russia, that would be amazing, I would love to try it.” In July 2016, when the American press increased criticism for Russian intervention in Syria, Trump said: “I would behave with Vladimir Putin firmly, but I can’t even imagine what I wanted to accomplish more than friendly to Russia, not like now.” But all this was said before November 8.

Now Trump and Putin need each other to a much greater extent than before. Trump could be useful to the Russian leadership in the field of a humanitarian settlement in Syria, the elimination of a military confrontation in the South-East of Ukraine, the recognition of Crimea as part of Russia and on many other political issues. These topics are on the surface in Russian-American politics and many are already in the process of being settled today. However, there are topics that are hidden behind the political veil that have crucial importance for the national security of entire continents.

One is the upcoming meeting of Putin with Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, which will take place on December 15, 2016 in the native Prefecture of Prime Minister, Yamaguchi. All participants are interested in developing Japanese-Russian negotiations relating to the Northern territories. Abe has publicly and strongly stated the necessity to break the stalemate in a territorial dispute over the four Islands, which Russia calls the Southern Kurils, and the Japanese the Northern territories. Russia annexed these Islands at the end of World War II. Each of the parties has legal and historical positions, making consensus difficult. As a result, Tokyo and Moscow have been unwilling to sign a peace Treaty and formally end the long conflict.

Putin’s visit to Japan will take place on the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump. Such a coincidence cannot be called accidental. The Japanese-American political-military alliance which has existed for more than 60 years and remains one of the strongest bilateral alliances formed by the United States in the Asia-Pacific following World War II.

But, the strengthening of the Japanese-American Union has proved inadequate for Japan. Today, Japan’s primary task is to effectively engage with a more powerful China. The conflict over the Senkaku Islands (China calls them the Diaoyu Islands) in the East China Sea, and Chinese actions for development of offshore gas fields has led to increased tensions between Tokyo and Beijing. That is why it is so important to the Japanese to sign a peace treaty with Russia and to cooperate to a certain extent with China. Given the provocative actions of China in the South China Sea, Japan will also need to be able to demonstrate to China that at the critical moment Japan can simultaneously interact with Russia. Meanwhile, Putin is well aware that Abe is moving closer to Russia, despite pressure on Japan from the United States.

Moscow knows that the Japanese Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Akitaka Saiki, went to Washington and held talks with US Deputy Secretary of state Antony Blinken, and informed him about the Pro-Russian course of Prime Minister Abe. The representative of the Japanese Foreign Ministry also told Blinken that security in northeast Asia and the development of Russian-Japanese relations is a plus. However, according to Saiki, the US was concerned about the initiative of the Japanese, but “expressed some understanding of the situation.”

Putin also believes that the rapprochement with Japan is also a plus in the current confrontation between Russia and Western countries. Prime Minister Abe believes that in order to counter the Chinese threat it is necessary to put pressure on China by strengthening ties with Russia, which does not discount the Japanese-American Alliance. On the other hand, Abe hopes that the rapprochement between Japan and Russia will help him prevent the strengthening of Russian-Chinese Alliance. Such is the political puzzle.

As for ending the dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands, Tokyo believes that there is a real possibility of rapprochement with Russia, in which none of the parties will have to abandon their current positions. This would allow joint control of the South Kuril Islands. The project takes into account Putin’s proposed method of dispute settlement based on the principle of “hikiwake.” “No winners or losers!” This assumes that Russia and Japan will be equal participants in further negotiations but if Russia reverts to its stance of 70 years ago, the South Kuril Islands will not be considered.

If Russia and Japan can agree on joint management of the disputed Northern territories, it will accelerate the peace treaty negotiations which have not moved forward. To lay the necessary foundation, Japan intends to expand economic ties with Russia. Last week Abe sent his trade minister to Moscow to discuss issues of economic cooperation.

However, Russia and Japan prefer to ignore the obvious “American problem”: will the United States consider the territory of the South Kuril Islands under joint Russian-Japanese sovereignty, subject to the Japan-American defense agreement? Trump’ presence in Japan on December 15 would be very helpful. The many nuances of the upcoming meeting in Japan are shrouded in mystery. We only know that the meeting will be held in the city of Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture, the birthplace of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Abe and Putin have met 14 times. However, this is Putin’s first visit to Japan for the last 11 years. Surely, Putin and Abe are communicating openly. The meeting in Nagato might signify Russian and Japanese unity. President Putin will bring along a large number of representatives of Russian business which might appeal to Trump’s professional interests.

Despite the dispute over the South Kuril Islands and the absence of a peace treaty, in economic terms, Japan can benefit from its northern neighbor because the Russian market is not competitive in Asia but at the same time has significant reserves of resources. In fact, Japan, not China, is the largest Asian investor in Russia. Large numbers of Japanese companies have invested in Russia for 25 years amounting to 14.4 billion dollars which is not reflected in official statistics.

The presence of Trump in the company of the leaders of Russia and Japan would be very useful because currently Washington and Tokyo have no alternative to the bilateral Alliance in the Asia-Pacific. Japan remains a key ally for the United States in the Asia-Pacific despite a number of serious conflicts (primarily historical) relating to Tokyo’s relations with neighbors in the region. That’s why the American military bases stationed on Japanese territory-continue to be among the largest overseas military facilities in the Asia-Pacific.

There is another historical nuance. Sixty years ago Nikita Khrushchev, who was then first Secretary of the CPSU Central Committee, proposed returning the two Islands of the South Kuril Islands which are closest to Japan. Japan ratified the Treaty but the Soviet Union eventually abandoned it, citing increased US military presence in Japan.

Putin is concerned about the strong links between Japan and the United States. He wants assurances that Abe is not just trying to settle the territorial dispute, but has become a strategic ally of Russia. In this case, the absence of Obama or Trump in the upcoming Russian-Japanese summit will be very handy for the Russians and the Japanese. On the other hand, this Japanese-Russian approach can be regarded as one of the indicators of political mistrust in the US, even for its ally. It’s also an example of a strengthened relationship between Putin and Trump that could lead to concrete political action which could benefit both countries.

I stand by my criticism of Trump in a previous article, “Putin, Trump, and Alaska,” but I respect the choice of the American people and congratulate Trump as the 45th President of the United States, and will support him to the best of my ability.