Eastern Economic Forum, Vladivostok: focus on Japan

14 September 2018

The 4th Eastern Economic Forum which held its plenary session on Wednesday, 12 September and heard important addresses from its host, Vladimir Putin, and from a constellation of Northeast Asian leaders, has received a smattering of attention in the world press, highlighting only a few elements in what has been a cornucopia of material for analysis in the economic, geopolitical and defense spheres.

Some picked up Vladimir Putin’s well planted remarks in questioning following his address, when he commented on the Skripal case, saying that the Russian suspects named a week ago by British Prime Minister Theresa May as military intelligence (GRU) operatives had presented themselves and were just ordinary citizens, not criminals. Some turned their attention to the Vostok-18 military exercises going on nearby in the Russian Far East on a scale not seen since the days of the Soviet Union and with participation of both Chinese and Mongolian units, a first of its kind.  There were discussions among analysts over whether the numbers of forces named by the Russians (300,000 fighting men, 1,000 aircraft, 36,000 tanks and armored personnel carriers) were not inflated and whether the exercise truly demonstrated Russia’s force projection capabilities across the 7,000 km of the Federation in tight timelines. Some very few, like The Financial Times, looked at the economic significance of the Forum taken on its own merits. The FT published an article on the risk calculations behind ongoing Chinese investments in the Russian Far East and in the Russian Federation more generally.

No mainstream commentators to my knowledge have examined the dynamics of the Northeast Asian leaders among themselves.

In the day preceding the formal opening of the Forum, Russian President Vladimir Putin held bilateral meetings with the lead guest, Chinese President Xi Jinping. He also met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In both cases, the talks were followed by lengthy statements to the press that were substantial and worthy of our time.

Still more interesting were the appearances of the five national leaders present on the dais at the plenary session.  It was a rare occasion to witness the presidents of Russia, China and Mongolia, the prime ministers of Japan and South Korea sitting together, hearing one another’s addresses and responding to questions.

The questioning was all the more relevant because, breaking with the recent tradition in Russian economic and political forums, the moderator came not from NBC or Bloomberg, who brought coy or hectoring questions to amuse Western audiences by standing up to the authoritarian in the Kremlin,  but from one of Russia’s most capable and most watched television journalists, Sergei Brillyov (Rossiya-1).  His questions had likely been coordinated with the Kremlin in advance and were more probing and revealing than anything we have seen hitherto in such formats.

In what follows, I will direct attention to one highly important and obvious feature of the proceedings which seems to have escaped the attention of my peers:  what the speeches and public meetings of the leaders tell us about Shinzo Abe and Japan’s political positioning in its region.

I do this taking advantage of the fly-on-the-wall privileged observation post that Russian state television granted to its global audience by presenting full live coverage, without commentary, of the plenary session addresses, of the statements to the press made by Vladimir Putin and his honored guests following their bilateral meetings ahead of the Forum’s opening, and of other significant moments in and around the Forum.  While my peers in North America may have been fast asleep, given the time differences, here in Europe the Russian broadcasts from the Far East arrived at breakfast time or later, making it possible to apply a fresh mind to tantalizing incoming images and speeches.


First, it has to be said that Prime Minister Abe was odd man out..  He used his address to the plenary session primarily as a plea for conclusion of a peace treaty with Russia during this generation, during his own and Vladimir Putin’s mandates in office..  By contrast, all of the other foreign leaders spoke glowingly of their ongoing and planned large-scale investment activities in Russia and the Far Eastern region. Abe had little to match their cooperation with Russia and sought to compensate by presenting a video that would put a human face on Japan’s miniscule efforts in Russia. The film was a brief overview of the various health related and technology related projects (traffic management, refuse reprocessing) that Japan is implementing in Russia from among the 150 projects that Abe had presented and Russia accepted two years ago, all to guide their bilateral relations to a new plateau.

The Japanese projects are all on the cheap. All are quite modest in scope and are meant to be indicative of the great assistance Japan can bestow on Russia in improving people’s lives if only Russia signs a peace treaty as dictated by Tokyo, meaning its agreement to the return of the Southern Kurile islands to Japanese sovereignty.

The effect of the video and recitation of Japanese cooperation projects in Russia is quite the opposite of what Abe may have intended. But it is perfectly in line with his wholly outdated understanding of the relative negotiating positions of Russia and Japan today. The film’s editorial slant is all one-way:  a wealthy and technologically superior Japan is lending a hand to a grateful Russia. This contradicts the overall theme of the other foreign leaders speaking to the Forum, which is how all the participating countries will help one another by closer coordination of their development plans, by mutual trade and investment.

We saw this balanced and win-win approach in the presentation of the South Korean prime minister, who mentioned his country’s participation in the construction of Russia’s largest shipbuilding complex (Zvezda) close to Vladivostok, while remaining a major supplier of advanced vessels to Russia for transporting liquefied natural gas. Or in South Korea’s eagerness to implement through rail transit to the Trans-Siberian and onward to Europe as soon as relations with North Korea can be normalized. And in the Korean participation in the North Sea route infrastructure for maritime shipping that Russia is keen to develop as an alternative to the routes via the Suez Canal or around the horn of Africa.

We saw this in the address of the Mongolian president describing joint energy projects with Russia and plans/hopes for expanded shipment of coal via Russia’s rail and port infrastructure, both what exists and what is under planning.

Shinzo Abe’s approach to Russia harks back to the 1970s and 1980s, when Japan was enjoying worldwide respect and envy as a dynamic Asian tiger that was buying up properties in the United States right and left and when the Soviet Union was in serious economic stagnation if not decline, looking for new buyers of its energy resources and new investors.

Today China occupies the position of strategic partner to which Japan pretended forty years ago. China is Russia’s major financier, investor and customer. China may not rank as highly as supplier of advanced technology as Japan did back then and continues to be today, but China is an equal partner with Russia in joint development of high-tech, as in the domain of civil aviation.

The present-day importance of Chinese trade and investment was one of the outstanding messages of the Forum.  In the meeting with the press after their bilateral talks, Vladimir Putin affirmed that two-way trade with China this year will grow by more than 20% to top 100 billion dollars.  Meanwhile, in the addresses to the plenary session the figure 100 billion came up again: this time quantifying the value of the joint Chinese-Russian investment projects directed at the Far Eastern and Baikal regions.

Against this background, the scale of Japanese investment and the whole of Abe’s 150 cooperation projects come in two orders of magnitude less.  The notion that these “carrots” could motivate Russia to agree to Japanese conditions for concluding a peace treaty is wholly unrealistic.

Abe’s proffered sweetener of joint administration of the Southern Kuriles intentionally misses the point of Russian resistance to abandoning sovereignty.  What is really at issue was brought up directly by Sergei Brillyov in a question to Vladimir Putin during the plenary session: whether the two leaders have not discussed Russian concerns that the Kuriles, if held by Japan, would become yet another stationing point for American military bases and in particular for the installation of anti-ballistic missile units.  Putin said they had, but this is something that Abe chooses to ignore as the stumbling block to conclusion of a peace treaty.

In what he described as a “spontaneous” suggestion to achieve the sought-after peace treaty, Putin proposed on stage that the two countries proceed to sign a peace treaty “without preconditions” before the end of this year. Then, having become friends, they might tackle the thorny issues like the Kuriles with more mutual confidence.  This proposal, which Abe later acknowledged he was hearing for the first time, was later dismissed as unworkable by the Japanese diplomats present.

Put in other words, Russia does not agree to concessions so long as it sees Japan as a stalking horse for the United States and its Pentagon.  And by his performance in the Forum, Abe demonstrated yet again that obedience to his masters in Washington for the sake of the nuclear umbrella is more important to him than striking any deal with the Russians. He alone among the five leaders put the name of Donald Trump in play from the dais:  he extended his fulsome praise to Trump for an innovative and brave outreach to North Korea, for holding a summit with Kim Jong-Un. No mention on his part of the initiative shown first and shown again most recently by the South Korean leader Moon Jae-In to bring the talks to a constructive finale between the Koreas and between the USA and North Korea.

Japan is nowhere on the map of strategic and large-scale economic integration of the region that includes but goes well beyond what was on show in the Forum.  The other binding forces are China’s Belt and Road initiative and the Eurasian Economic Union.  Shinzo Abe’s Japan remains a US outpost largely cut off from its geographical and business environment in Northeast Asia. It is missing out on the dynamic processes energizing the whole area.  At the Forum.  China was the single largest player with its delegation exceeding 2,000 businessmen and government representatives. Under leadership as stale and timid as Shinzo Abe proved to be at the Forum, his country is fated to become the Land of the Setting Sun.


©Gilbert Doctorow, 2018