Shinzo Abe’s East European tour

Andreea Brinza | 25 January 2018

Nukes, missiles and economics. On January 12, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe started a diplomatic tour in 6 countries, 3 from Baltic region and 3 from Southeast Europe. The purpose? To discuss the North Korean problem and to improve the economic ties with the European countries. For all the six countries of the tour, Abe’s visit was the first time a Japanese Prime Minister paid a visit on their territory.

Abe’s North Korean odyssey started in Estonia, where he discussed with Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid about cybersecurity and the threat that North Korean and Chinese cyberattacks pose to the Japanese society. Although it is one of the smallest countries in Europe, Estonia gained worldwide fame as one of the most advanced European countries in the field of information technology. Abe announced that Japan will join the NATO’s cyberdefence center which has its headquarters in Tallin, to counter online cybercrime. Abe started his tour accompanied by representatives from 30 companies and in Estonia the most visible company was Rakuten. Rakuten is a IT company which owns one of the largest Japanese e-commerce platforms, Rakuten Ichiba.

Next stop, Latvia. In Riga, Abe met his Latvian counterpart, Prime Minister Maris Kucinskis, with whom he discussed preponderantly about the North Korean problem. Although relations between North and South Korea have warmed thanks to the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, Japan continues to call for the international community to “maximize the pressure” on North Korea.

In Lithuania, Shinzō Abe arrived on January 14 and met with Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis. During his visit in Lithuania, Abe emphasized the power of North Korean ballistic missiles, which are capable to reach even Vilnius. Here, Abe honored Chiune Suhigara, known worldwide as the Japanese Schindler, by paying a visit to his memorial house. Suhigara was a Japanese diplomat who saved around 6.000 Jews while he was vice consul in Lithuania, during the Second World War.

But Abe’s epic tour didn’t stop there. After the Baltics followed Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania. Bulgaria was one of the most important stops. Bulgaria holds the rotating presidency of the European Union (EU) and Japan has negotiated a free trade agreement with the EU, named the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement trade deal. This trade deal wants to easeJapanese imports into Europe especially vehicles, while Europe will be exempted from paying tariffs for agricultural exports.

In Bulgaria, Abe met Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and discussed about economics and nukes. Japan pledged to invest in Bulgaria, while Bulgaria offered its unconditional support regarding the North Korean problem.

On the list followed Serbia, one of the most important countries if we view Shinzō Abe’s visit as a counterweight to the Chinese project, the Belt and Road Initiative. Serbia has one of the strongest relations with China, paved by success once China started the construction of the Budapest-Belgrad railway. Japan has had a difficult mission: to convince a pro-Chinese country to also look to the Nippon investments. But the most important topic was the accession of Serbia to the European Union. Japan promised to support Serbia’s candidacy to EU and, even more, pledge to aid Serbia to obtain all the approvals from the EU. The North Korean problem was also on the agenda of the visit, Serbia opposing to the actions undertaken by Pyongyang.

The ex-Yugoslavian countries are under the Chinese charm if we take into account the investments and the dialogue that China promotes in this region. The 16+1 format is the most iconic economic platform dedicated to the countries from Central and Eastern Europe. Because Japan didn’t want to remain behind, it named a special ambassador for the Western Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia, Kosovo and Albania). His mission will be to focus on economics and social problems in order to improve Japan-Western Balkans countries relation.

The last stop was in Romania, where Abe faced an unpleasant surprise: there was no prime minister with whom Shinzō Abe could have talks with, so the visit was limited to a meting with the president Klaus Iohannis. Mihai Tudose, the former prime minister, tendered his resignation less than 20 hours before Abe’s arrival, because of tensions within his party. The gesture was widely criticized within Romania.

Romania is an important spot on the Japanese investment map, Japanese companies being the most visible Asian companies in Romania. Moreover, Japan is financing the construction of a new metro line, which aims to connect the international airport Henri Coandă with Bucharest. Due to these aspects, Klaus Iohannis and Shinzō Abe talked about the possibility to upgrade Romania-Japan relations to the level of a strategic partnership.

Although it may look useless when we think about the North Korean problem, Shinzō Abe’s visit had an important purpose. All the countries that he visited were former communist countries and used to have good relations with North Korea. The Romanian ex-president, Nicolae Ceaușescu, for example, was impressed by the incredible parades during a visit in North Korea and since then he implemented in Romania policies similar to those seen in North Korea. On the other hand, these countries still have opulent North Korean embassies, which sometimes become true business companies. It is the case of the North Korean Embassy from Sofia (Bulgaria), which was rented as a ballroom for private events.

In conclusion, Abe’s visit was a first for Eastern Europe and a great success for Japan, which succeeded in promoting its anti-North Korea agenda and strengthening relations with the Eastern flank of the European Union.

Photo Credits: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis during their meeting in Bucharest, on 16 January (Presidency of Romania); Shinzo Abe portrait on graffiti (Flickr/thierry ehrmann)

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Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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