Japan’s active role at this year’s G7 Summit would appear to benefit Russia and may hint at an improvement in Russia’s relationship with Japan.


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, second left, might become Russia's best friend in the G7. Photo: AP

The G7 Ise-Shima summit in late May became another classic example of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic style. Prior to the summit, he embarked upon an intercontinental flurry of preparatory visits to touch base with foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin. In doing so, he sought to showcase Japan’s role as the voice of Asia within the G7 and the ability of Japan to play a greater role in international diplomacy.

While the bulk of the G7’s agenda is traditionally dedicated to the state of the global economy and major international political issues, such as the situation in Syria, Ukraine and the Korean peninsula, Abe also attempted to highlight the matters that rank high for Japan as the world’s third-largest economy. However, the response from his European peers appeared lukewarm at best.

Japan as the voice of Asia in the G7

The fact that Japan is the sole Asian power within the G7 implies that a summit in Asia occurs only once every 7 years. The rest of the summits are hosted in Western Europe and North America. Although both the United States and Canada have coastlines along the Asia-Pacific, the G7’s current composition (the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the UK) downplays the role of Asia on the global agenda.

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In Ise-Shima, Abe partially offset this underrepresentation problem by setting up a number of visits with Asian leaders, such as Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Indonesian President Joko Widodo. This is a reasonable move, given that the upcoming G20 summit in Hangzhou will see a larger number of Asian leaders sitting at the same table presided by China.

Abe is only the third Japanese prime minister in the history of the G7 and G8 (when Russia was a member) to attend its annual summit five times, the other two leaders being Yasuhiro Nakasone in the 1980s and Jun’ichiro Koizumi in 2001-2006. This continuity strikes a contrast with the usual pattern of political leaders in the West seeing a different Japanese prime minister every year. This time, quite the opposite, Abe’s term is all but guaranteed through 2018 at least or even longer in case Abe calls – and wins – an extraordinary lower chamber election. Meanwhile, the United States, France and Germany will hold elections in 2016-2017.

This, of course, raises the question of policy continuity. What happens when new leaders are elected in the West?

The domestic and foreign policy implications of the G7 Summit for Japan

This context adds to existing differences over macroeconomic policies, which impede a concerted effort on the global economy. At Ise-Shima, the leaders agreed on closer fiscal cooperation and shared the intention to help the world’s increasingly frustrated middle class, but disagreed on how much G7 nations should spend individually.

In the run-up to the summit, Japan and the U.S. voiced disagreement on Tokyo’s yen depreciation measures and currency interventions. The United Kingdom and Germany are sticking with austerity measures despite Japan’s requests to increase spending. More generally, instead of incorporating Abe’s repeated warnings of a potential global economic crisis comparable to the 2008 Lehman Brothers shock, the final document opted for vague wording of “downside risks to the global outlook.”

Notwithstanding the differences, the summit was certainly a success for Japan. Internationally, Tokyo reiterated that its proactive vigorous diplomacy is the new normal, as Abe showcased the stability of the U.S.-Japan alliance and had a shot at the role of shuttle mediator between Russia and the G7.

Domestically, Abe scored a lot of points with the Japanese public, which he can convert into votes during the upcoming July 10 election of the Diet’s upper chamber. The prime minister might even recycle them in the event he ventures into dissolving the parliament’s lower chamber for a snap election.

After the G7 summit, Abe’s approval rating soared to 56 percent - its highest level since September 2014. Besides the inherent PR value of hosting a G7 summit and resulting photo-ops, the positive reaction from the Japanese public was likely stimulated by U.S. President Barack Obama’s unprecedented visit to Hiroshima and by a number of synchronized announcements made by the Japanese cabinet.

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Namely, during his meeting with Obama, Abe promised to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement “this fall or thereafter.” Thus, Japan took a wait-and-see stance on the TPP – a sensitive issue for the nation’s farmers and other political constituencies during the summer election – making it subject to the U.S. election outcome and TPP’s ratification in the U.S. Congress. Combined, the United States and Japan represent 80 percent of TPP’s participants’ GDP, making their ratifications crucial for the trade pact’s fate.

Japan’s rivalry with China

2016 marks a unique coincidence, when both G7 and G20 summits are hosted by staunch East Asian rivals. China is getting ready to chair the Hangzhou G20 meeting this September. Consequently, the Sino-Japanese rivalry permeated the summit. As University of Sheffield’s Japan expert Hugo Dobson notes, so far Sino-Japanese relations have demonstrated more competition than cooperation, although it is certainly the latter the international community and the global economy need more.

Although the Ise-Shima Leaders’ Declaration does not expressly refer to China, it addresses matters directly concerning China in one way or another: the freedom of navigation in East and South China Seas, excess capacity in the global steel market, the TPP and infrastructure.

In addition, Ise-Shima’s final documents called for cooperation between Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), without naming but in all likelihood implying, the Japan-dominated Asian Development Bank (ADB) and China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). In fact, the ADB and the AIIB are already cooperating through co-financing projects, both bilaterally and with other MDBs, such as the Eurasian Development Bank.

While the diversification of supply in infrastructure finance benefits the recipients, their bargaining power may be curtailed by greater concert between the MDBs, especially as China still has to prove its much-hyped infrastructure ambitions can live up to expectations.

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The G7 and Russia

Abe’s diplomatic preparations for the Ise-Shima summit included a brief detour to Sochi, where the Japanese leader met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The choice of venue appeared highly symbolic: Abe was the only then-G8 leader apart from the Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta who attended the opening ceremony of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, while the Group’s summit same year was initially expected to be hosted in Sochi as well – before Russia had its membership in the G8 suspended.

Japanese media stressed Washington’s discontent with Abe’s pre-Ise-Shima trip to the Black Sea resort, further highlighting the meeting’s leitmotif – breaking Russia’s isolation. Last time a remotely comparable event took place was when Tokyo helped Moscow’s bid to join the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in the mid-1990s.

Seizing the opportunity to mediate between Russia and the G7 allowed Abe to raise Japan’s profile as a global player and to create additional momentum for the improvement of Russo-Japanese relations. Abe’s visit to Sochi marked his 13th meeting with Putin – in contrast, Abe has met Obama “only” eight times. Besides, Tokyo may have viewed its dialogue with Moscow as leverage for greater recognition of the issues in East China and South China Seas by other summit participants. G7’s eventual reluctance to express a more pronounced support to Japan on those matters frees Abe’s hands to further approach Moscow the way he deems necessary.

While the 2015 G7 statement only addressed Russia in regard to the Ukrainian crisis, the Ise-Shima declaration welcomed Russia’s commitment to exercise influence over the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The language on Russia’s involvement in Ukraine remained broadly unchanged from 2015 but was toned down: The Ise-Shima declaration did not inherit the calls “to stop trans-border support of separatist forces” and did not qualify Russia’s influence over separatists as “considerable.”

Although these results can hardly be qualified as a “breakthrough,” they are most likely in line with the expectations of interested parties – much like the 2016 G7 summit itself. Shinzo Abe came out a clear winner, making the most of Japan’s turn in this year’s global summitry, as the world’s eyes are now turning to Hangzhou.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.