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Expanding NATO to the Kuril Islands

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Angela Merkel tried to convince Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of the feasibility of Japan’s joining NATO

Expanding NATO to the Kuril Islands

Photo: AP/TASS

Written by Svetlana Gomzikova; Originally appeared at Svpressa, translated by AK exclusively for SouthFront

German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to convince Japan to join NATO. As reported by Russian News Agency TASS, an English-language newspaper called The Japan News, a branch of the largest news conglomerate in Japan known as Yomiuri Shimbun, broke the story.

According to this newspaper, the proposal was made in March 2015 when the German Chancellor made an official visit to the “land of the rising sun” and met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo. This came 7 years after her last visit. Merkel allegedly invited Japan to join the North Atlantic alliance and reassured Abe that it would be easy to “persuade” British Prime Minister Cameron and French President Hollande and that there would be no objections.

According to The Japan Times, the Japanese head of state replied in the best tradition of eastern diplomacy “so as to not be impolite”, that “it was a future possibility”. It is understood that Japan’s accession to NATO would interfere with its ongoing negotiations with Russia to conclude a formal peace treaty for World War II and resolve the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands.

It is important to note that the scandalous “leak” occurred ahead of Shinzo Abe’s visit to Russia and his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin planned for May 6th in Sochi.

The question is, was this a coincidence?

“I have serious doubts about whether this conversation which was reported in the Japanese publication actually took place”, commented the Director of the Russian Institute of Political Analysis, Alexander Shpunt. “We must remember that NATO is a North Atlantic alliance. Even the inclusion of Turkey was controversial enough. This was only justified by the fact that part of Turkey’s territory lies in Europe along the Straights. Therefore the membership of Japan, or for example, Australia, another very important strategic partner of the West, is just impossible.

Merkel fully understands this. And, of course, a conversation like that just could not have taken place.

Furthermore, it would be strange if such negotiations concerning a potential new member of NATO were led by the Germans rather than the Americans, who actually control NATO.”

SP: But could Merkel have taken on such a mission, perhaps at the behest of Washington?

“I think it is totally impossible. Instead, it might have been a conversation about possible formats for Japanese cooperation with NATO. There are several examples of this kind of partnership like what Israel or Finland has.”

SP: But Japan, as is well known, already is part of the “Global Partnership” program with NATO, along with Australia, South Korea, Iraq, and several other countries…

“I mean that this is enough. It isn’t likely that we are talking about anything more serious. What’s more, Japan has its own bilateral agreement with the United States. This defense pact essentially secures the US military presence in the Pacific Ocean.

Let me remind you that the US declined to create a military block in the Pacific, opting instead to sign bilateral agreements – they have this metaphor, ‘hub and spokes’, where the hub is the US and the spokes are their allies – with Japan, South Korea, Finland, and Australia…

As for the upcoming visit of Abe to Russia, it is without a doubt important, but unlikely to solve the problem with the Kuril Islands. We have to take other things into consideration.”

SP: What do you mean?

“We have to consider that Abe is the most militant Japanese Prime Minister in post-war history. We often talk about how the Japanese defense budget is just one percent of GDP. However, firstly it is already more than that. Abe jumped that hurdle although it wasn’t a very large spending increase, but it was a symbolic decision. And secondly, it’s one percent of a huge economy.

Today, the military budget of Japan is on par with that of France and more than that of Germany.

Literally last week, Japan launched a new 5th generation jet fighter and became the fourth country in the world after the US, China, and Russia, which has stealth fighter technology.

The Japanese army, at least according to military experts, is one of the most promising armies of the 21st century. Unlike, for example, Saudi Arabia which also spends a lot of money on defense, Japan is a high-tech power. They don’t just buy arms from the US; they also produce their own weapons. Namely, that X-2 fighter which I just mentioned is a Japanese fighter.

Japan’s military ambition, one way or another, will be projected through its policies.”

SP: In what way? Japan’s armed forces are still officially called self-defense forces…

“First of all, it is confronting China over the disputed islands in the South China Sea. Second, there is a sharp cooling of relations with South Korea. Japan never had an especially close relationship with that country but today it’s reaching a nearly critical low. And third, it is attempting to build a new format for relations with the US in which Japan would play a more serious role.

Viewed in this light, the publication [by The Japan News] is basically a test exposing Japanese society to new ideas. The conversation itself is fiction. It’s all an attempt to find out how Japanese society would react to a strengthening of ties with NATO.

This is unlikely to have a direct effect on Abe’s visit [to Russia]. Although, as I already said, he is the most militaristic Prime Minister in all post-war history, this does not weigh on the relationship with Russia. Tokyo’s relations with Moscow never cross over to the level of military threats and provocations.”

SP: By the way, the agenda for the upcoming meeting in Sochi is fairly neutral. Official reports suggest that the two sides are planning to discuss the opportunities for cooperation in trade and the humanitarian sphere, as well as a number of other international issues. That is to say that sensitive questions will not be touched on?

“Exactly. This is the position of Abe: It’s useless to discuss issues for which there is no political answer. Right now the disputed islands with China are much more important for Japan than the islands disputed with Russia. The South China Sea islands is a problem that needs to be solved immediately. The islands disputed with Russia certainly can wait.

As for Russia, they are already doing what needs to be done. I’ll remind you that our Russian Pacific Fleet is growing faster than all other fleets. Secondly, there is a transfer of strategic submarine bases from Primorya to Kamchatka. This is a very important factor. It increases the safety of these bases and widens the area of their use, primarily along the American coasts.

Yes, the military build-up of Japan should be monitored but that doesn’t mean that tomorrow Japan will attack the Kuril Islands. Right now I don’t see even one political reason for that.

The head of economic and political department at the Japan Center for Asia-Pacific Studies IMEMO, Vitaliy Shvidko, also expressed doubt about Merkel’s ‘flattering offers’:

‘They’re all rumors. From the point of view of general logic and the style of interactions between these leaders, a dialogue like that seems highly improbable.’

Another thing is that there actually is a desire to energize the political atmosphere with these kinds of dubious sensationalisms for whatever reason. And clearly, this could be connected with Abe’s upcoming visit. There are people, including some in Japan, who consider it to be an unjustified step. I wouldn’t call it a provocation, more likely the rumors were just heard by those who were ready to believe them.

It needs to be said that in the last few years, the Russian-Japanese relationship hasn’t changed significantly, not for the better, not for the worse. There are a certain set of expectations from both sides that have not yet been met because the conditions that the Russian side and the Japanese side have are different.

There is hope that a compromise can be reached on the most sensitive issues. For now, however, there is no indication that that is happening soon.

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Ruskies always think “it can’t happen”, but yet it always does…

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