What Will Noda Be Up to in Moscow?

I’ve been having minor disagreements with MTC of late (by clogging up his comments section) regarding the coherence of the Noda administration’s approach to the current political situation and what they hope to get out of it. Long story short – MTC sees Noda as still having a few cards to play, while I am more inclined to agree with LDP Secretary-General Ishiba Shigeru (日) that whatever game he is playing, it is futile and will probably lead the DPJ to even worse results than it currently faces. Minister of Education Tanaka Makiko’s somewhat abrupt, misdirected crusade against ‘poor quality universities’ by picking on three due for accreditation next year, will likely consolidate Noda’s fate unless Ms Tanaka has become less stubborn since her last stint as a minister and retracts her comments, preferably by yesterday. (See Jun Okumura here for reflections with which I concur). It certainly will give LDP leader Abe Shinzo a lot of timely ammunition (日) given that he himself would have seen Tanaka’s “interesting” behaviour up close while he was Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary during the first Koizumi cabinet.

I have however held in the back of my mind one potential exception that could actually genuinely help Noda raise his image – that exception being a “December surprise” in regards to Noda’s visit to Russia. In the middle of this year’s APEC meeting near Vladivostok, against the backdrop of Russia’s pronouncement that it wanted to conduct a pivot of its own to the Asia-Pacific, President Putin invited Noda to visit again later in the year suggesting something ‘substantial’ could be discussed. Over the last few months there has also been more diplomatic activity than normal around Russo-Japanese relations, and I have noticed a little more interest in Russia among Japanese observers of Japan’s foreign policy.  Japan reacted with atypical calm to Russia sending a warship to the Kuriles during the height of tensions with China over the Senkakus in 2012, especially given former PM Kan’s 2010 outburst regarding Medvedev’s visit to the Kuriles (to be sure likely an overcorrection given the 2010 Senkaku dispute had taken place not long beforehand exposing Kan’s lack of foreign policy nouse, and for that matter, interest). Now that Putin is safely entrenched for another 8 years now would indeed be a good time to start to work on a long-term foreign policy agenda. Assuming a degree of Japanese diplomatic flexibility that, without China’s recent indiscretions, would probably normally not be forthcoming, it would seem the stage is being set for an interesting December meeting.

Is this what Noda could be holding out for? Is this why (or one of the reasons) the LDP is so urgent to have an election this year (or have Noda commit to one before he gets on a plane to Russia)? Will there be significant announcements regarding political commitments to resolve the Kurile Islands dispute and strategic alignment on energy policy?

So I have wondered anyhow.

This comprehensive piece by a former Indian diplomat to the Soviet Union would suggest there might be something to this line of thought.

Ultimately, Japan may be of great assistance for Russia’s desire to soft balance against China and its influence in the Far East by inserting itself into Asia. Japan certainly has assisted India’s being drawn into the East Asian diplomatic fold over the last 5 to 10 years after its “Look East” policy started to take effect. Like for India, access to Japanese finance and technology could also help drive a degree of economic upscaling and development.

Whether any big announcement, if it comes to fruition, will really have any impact on Noda’s fortunes is unclear. As it is, foreign policy usually has only a fleeting command over any public’s imagination and mostly it is something that only subtracts from popularity, not enhances it, as Hatoyama and Kan have already learned. To be sure a big announcement may well have had an impact earlier in Noda’s tenure. However it would seem with Noda now having dipped to 17 percent support, after having already risen and fallen a few times, the public will be indifferent to anything but the most startling positive developments.

I don’t believe the Russians are going to be quite that accommodating.

Update: Former PM Mori is preparing to go to Moscow.

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