Sunday, July 27, 2014

Washington irritated by Japan diplomacy on Russia, North Korea

A widening rift is emerging between Japan and the United States over the handling of the crisis in Ukraine and dealing with North Korea.

The Obama administration is particularly sensitive about the prospect of Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting Japan as early as this autumn. It is also concerned that Japan will further relax sanctions toward Pyongyang if there is progress in North Korea's attempts to shed light on the status of Japanese abductees from the 1970s and '80s.

With the United States strengthening sanctions against Russia, the Obama administration feels let down that Japan has not followed suit.

A high-ranking U.S. government source said the proposed visit to Japan by Putin would send the wrong message about consensus within the international community in dealing with Russia.

While European nations, like Japan, had tended to take a more cautious approach toward Russia, that changed with the recent downing of the Malaysia Airlines jet by a surface-to-air missile.

On July 21, Obama called on the international community to act as one in applying pressure on Russia.

Even against this background, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe adamantly declared in a July 19 speech, "I will continue to hold dialogue with Putin."

The hard-line stance by the United States and Europe has forced the Abe administration to backtrack.

At his July 22 news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga referred to the Putin visit but said, "Nothing has been decided at this point about possible dates."

A high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said: "With the shooting down of the Malaysia Airlines jet, a visit to Russia by Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida which would have served as a precondition for a Putin visit to Japan will not be possible in the near future. There will be no progress in talks between Japan and Russia with the United States now expressing its anger toward Russia."

Although Abe's desire to make progress in resolving the decades-old Northern Territories issue by maintaining amicable relations with Putin has not changed, pursuing a relationship with Moscow that is out of step with other Western nations will only aggravate the United States and lower Japan's standing in the international community.

For that reason, the Abe administration will likely have to fall in step with other nations and see how the situation plays out.

Washington has also been noticeably irritated by Japan's recent moves toward North Korea.

In a July 7 telephone call with Kishida, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry asked that the United States be consulted beforehand if Abe was to visit North Korea.

The conversation took place soon after Japan relaxed some economic sanctions toward North Korea in the wake of a new investigation by Pyongyang into whether any Japanese abductees are still alive.

Concerned about Kerry's request, Foreign Ministry officials decided that it would be important to have Kishida meet directly with Kerry to explain what the Abe administration was trying to do. However, a trip to Washington could not be arranged because of Kerry's tight schedule.

The earliest the two will likely meet is in early August at the ASEAN Regional Forum session to be held in Myanmar.

While Abe clearly appreciates Washington's concerns, he is also keen to maintain momentum in his talks with North Korea.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki has repeatedly said, "We continue to support Japanese efforts to resolve the abductions issue in a transparent manner."

However, several sources in the Japanese and U.S. governments pointed out that the reference to "a transparent manner" was an indication of the concerns held by officials in Washington about Japan going its own way--in effect striking a deal to resolve the issue that might not find favor elsewhere.

The Obama administration feels Japan has been less than candid about its negotiations with North Korea.

Doubts have only grown with reports of secret talks between Japan and North Korea that took Washington by surprise. There is also talk that Abe might visit North Korea.

On July 3, soon after Japan lifted various sanctions against North Korea, Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, said that such actions "should not come at the expense of the multilateral sanctions that are in place with respect to denuclearization" in North Korea.

Washington fears that the fabric of cooperation between Japan, the United States and South Korea will tear if Japan alone works to improve ties with North Korea.

A researcher at a U.S. think tank said North Korea has often taken such steps to drive a wedge between Japan, the United States and South Korea.

(This article was written by Takashi Oshima in Washington and Nozomi Matsui and Shinya Sugizaki in Tokyo.)



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