Can We Talk about a Breakthrough in Russian-Japanese Relations?

Vladimir Putin’s Tokyo visit in December 2016 facilitated the resumption of talks on a peace treaty between Russia and Japan. Next was a meeting between deputy foreign ministers, who discussed plans for joint business activities on the Kuril Islands. The Russian and Japanese foreign ministers and defense ministers also held a meeting in the 2+2 format. The media promptly declared that a breakthrough had taken place in Russian-Japanese relations. However, Valdai Club expert Valery Kistanov, who heads the Center for Japanese Studies at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences thinks that it is still too early to talk about any “breakthrough”: resolutions to most important bilateral problems are “beyond the visible political horizon.”             

I don’t think that we can talk about a breakthrough in relations between Russia and Japan because this implies that relations have reached a new qualitative level. The biggest obstacle is the territorial question and, as a consequence, the lack of a peace treaty between the two countries. There is also the Japanese-US treaty on security guarantees, which for Russia, like for the Soviet Union before it, plays the role of “NATO in the East.”

Today the parties’ positions on the main – territorial – problem are worlds apart. Japan insists that Russia, as the legal successor to the USSR, which seized the “northern four islands” by force, holds them illegally, and insists on their return. Russia holds that the southern Kuril Islands reverted to it as a result of World War II and that Russian sovereignty over them is clear. 

Of course, the two countries have been inching closer together since 2016, mostly thanks to persistent efforts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. He is staying this course despite criticism from the US and other G7 members. The latter believe that he is out of step with them and is undermining the West’s unity as it confronts an “aggressive Russia,” although Japan does hold a negative view on Russia’s annexation of Crimea and on Russian policy in eastern Ukraine, and has no intention to lift the (largely symbolic) sanctions it has introduced against Moscow in connection with these events. 

Paradoxically, Abe has suggested an economic cooperation plan in the hope that it will induce Putin to soften the Russian position on the territorial dispute. Japan is certainly aware of the difficult situation in the Russian economy caused by the sanctions and slumping oil prices.

In no small measure, Tokyo’s desire for closer contact with Moscow is motivated by the apprehension that China will monopolize Russia’s natural resources in Siberia and the Far East and an intention to “drag” Russia away from China in the area of military cooperation, because China’s growing military might and vigorous expansion in the seas are seen by Tokyo as the biggest security threat to Japan.

In the meantime, the importance of Russia and Japan to each other as economic partners is quite insignificant. Their economies have a different structure and they are unlikely to close the gap in the foreseeable future. There is no reason to believe that cooperation with Tokyo will enable Moscow to mitigate the negative effect of Western sanctions, even if the economic agreements reached at the Russian-Japanese meeting in December are eventually implemented.          

In relations with Russia, the Japanese Prime Minister is putting a stake on building personal trust-based relations with Vladimir Putin in the belief that the long-lasting territorial dispute can only be settled by two charismatic politicians. This hides the desire to ultimately obtain control over the four southern Kuril Islands, or the “northern territories,” to use the Japanese term, to which Japan is laying a claim.

Abe’s current foreign policy priority is to resolve the territorial problem on Japanese terms, along with the problem of abducted Japanese nationals in relations with North Korea. His dream is to come down in history as a politician who managed to solve a problem that remained unsolved for more than 70 years. 

But even the Putin-Abe meeting in Japan last December, the large number of signed economic cooperation agreements notwithstanding, failed to lead to any serious shifts in their positions on the territorial issue. More than that, Abe is facing strong criticism in his country (not only from the opposition but also from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party) for allegedly having conceded too much economy-wise and gotten nothing in exchange on the territories. 

In addition, Abe’s hope that his economic cooperation plan will evince Russian concessions in the territorial dispute has not come to pass. Even an agreement on the joint economic development of the disputed territories the two leaders reached is faltering because of the parties’ differing understanding of the legal basis that should underlie the effort. 

Judging by all appearances, Russian-Japanese relations will continue to develop as dynamically this year as they did last year, since Abe is scheduled to meet with Putin in Moscow in late April and in Vladivostok in early September. But resolving the territorial issue and signing a peace treaty seem to be beyond the visible horizon.  

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.