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Pipeline politics: Putin’s pivot to Asia?

13 Feb Pipeline politics: Putin’s pivot to Asia?

Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Many Western leaders had boycotted the event, in response to Russia’s anti-homosexual law passed last year. Besides holding talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Mr Abe also had lunch with him – even Chinese President Xi Jinping, who also attended the opening ceremony in Sochi, did not receive such an honour.

The content of the discussions between the Russian and Japanese leaders exceeded the expectations of some. After decades, Russia and Japan seem to be finally be inching towards a resolution of a territorial dispute over four islands northeast of Hokkaido, known in Russia as the Southern Kuril islands. Because this territorial dispute had become a major sticking point between Russia and Japan, they have still not signed a peace treaty since the end of World War II. This looks set to change.

Moreover, Mr Putin agreed to visit Japan later this year. This can only fuel speculation that Mr Abe is actively courting Russia in the midst of increasing tensions in Northeast Asia, and that Mr Putin is fully reciprocating the olive branch extended to him. Could this be the moment of Mr Putin’s “pivot to Asia”, much like the US’s policy towards the region?

Mr Putin’s strategic foray into Asia is of course different from that of the US. Russia’s abundant energy resources will be used as a political tool in strengthening its ties with Asia. Moscow recently released its plan to double oil and gas exports to Asia by 2035 through the East Siberia-Pacific Ocean pipeline. Already, Russia has called for tax cuts and a favourable investment environment in Siberia for energy industries.

Japan will pin much hope on Mr Putin’s strategy as it seeks a low-carbon alternative to nuclear power in the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster. For Russia, Japan seems to be an appealing economic partner capable of providing capital and technology. Putting the territorial dispute aside, the mutual interests of Moscow and Tokyo toward sustainable growth would consolidate bilateral relations.

Yet, it is still unclear how a rejuvenated relationship between the two countries will help ease geopolitical tensions in the region. The effectiveness of Putin’s pivot to Asia will be tested through its geopolitical and energy relations with China, Japan and the two Koreas.


Stability in Northeast Asia crucial to resolving Japan-Russia territorial dispute [Asahi Shimbun, 11 Feb 2014]

Russia’s Putin to visit Japan, ties with Tokyo warming [Reuters, 8 Feb 2014]