(THE CHINA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - At long last, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was able to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Nagato, Yamaguchi Prefecture on Dec 14.
Abe first met Putin at Moscow in 2013. The second Abe-Putin meeting took place in the resort city of Sochi near the Black Sea last May. They talked about how to solve the dispute over Japan's Northern Territories of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Hambomai of the Kuril Islands. In early September, they met at Vladivostok for the third time. Then again they met and talked at Lima on the sidelines of an informal APEC summit in November. In return, Putin visited Japan for the first time after postponing it once and again because of the conflict in Crimea.
Postwar Russia-Japan relations have been complicated not just by the Northern Territories dispute but also persistent U.S. restraint on Japan's foreign policy.
That is why Putin, who knows full well Abe is under American pressure, chose the best time - when Washington is in governmental transition - to go to Nagato to get a meeting point of the former's "Global Diplomacy" and the latter's "Pivot to Asia."
Because of the fast rise of China, Japan has to rearrange the military deployment to avoid a pincer movement from the north and the west.
Part of the defence forces deployed in north Japan, chiefly in Hokkaido, to repel possible Russian attacks must be moved to the west to face the new possible enemy of the People's Republic of China.
As China-Japan relations sour and while Russia and the United States prepare to start a detente, Abe's Japan is being constrained by Putin's Russia.
But unlike Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, who was insulted by the former leader of the Soviet Union Nikita Khrushchev at a poolside cabana in Beijing's Zhungnanhai, Abe received Putin at his hometown of Yumoto Onsen, a hot spring resort, as a state guest to telepathically cultivate an intimate personal friendship to better tackle the problem of the Northern Territories still under Russian occupation since the end of World War II.
The Soviet Union did not take part in the San Francisco Peace Conference and the two countries have yet to sign a peace treaty to formally end the war.
As a matter of fact, Abe is doing what he can to fulfill the last wish of his maternal grandfather Nobusuke Kishi, the premier who got the pivotal Mutual Defense Agreement between Japan and the United States signed.
Nevertheless, Abe's efforts failed to win Putin's heart. His "hot springs diplomacy" failed.
Media reports confirmed the latest Abe-Putin summit as a Russian victory, for Moscow made no concessions whatsoever in the negotiations of the crucial Northern Territories problem in exchange for the conclusion of economic cooperation deals worth 300 billion yen (S$3.7 billion).
In fact, Japan compromised its position on economic cooperation based on the prerequisite of a solution for the territorial dispute.
The result is that Abe made Japan an errand boy for Putin to free Russia from the economic sanctions of the United States and its European allies as well as its near international isolation as a result of its involvement in the Middle East conflict.
Abe accurately understands that Japan is incapable of appeasing Russia.
Nor can Tokyo make any significant change in the movement of the political tectonic plate of China, the United States and Western Europe.
The only international relations policy he can adopt while Barack Obama is a lame duck and Donald Trump has yet to be inaugurated as president is one of "balanced prevention."
Trump has picked Putin's good friend Rex Tillerson as his secretary of state. This means Washington is likely to usher in a detente with Moscow, which will adversely affect Abe's efforts to solve the dispute over Japan's Northern Territories by offering economic cooperation.
He has to admit that a Russia-US detente leads to a shrinking strategic space for Japan to conclude territorial negotiations with success.
What Abe's Japan should do now is to forestall the United States, just as Tokyo did in coping with the Nixon Shock of 1972, to further befriend Putin's Russia.
But the difference is that the then-country to befriend was China, which imperial Japan almost conquered, whereas the rival now is Russia that invaded and occupied the southern half of Sakhalin and the four Kurile islands nearest to the northeastern tip of Hokkaido.