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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok

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.

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.

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.

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.

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