Russia and Japan: Breakthrough in the Territorial Dispute?

Apart from the interest in resolving the territorial dispute, China and North Korea are also important factors pushing Japan into Russia’s arms.

On May 6, Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Sochi with Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe, who came to Russia after touring Europe where he met with European leaders to discuss the upcoming G7 summit in Japan. It seems that he also sought to explain his special policy toward Russia against the backdrop of sanctions imposed on Russia by the West for reunification with Crimea and the situation in Ukraine.

This policy consists, among other things, in easing economic sanctions imposed by Tokyo on Moscow, Abe’s regular meetings with Putin at various international forums, and the eagerness of Japan to arrange Putin’s official visit to Tokyo this year. Despite Washington’s discontent over this policy, Abe remains committed to it and has traveled to Russia yet again. He used this opportunity to declare a “new approach” to the territorial dispute. He also offered an eight-point economic cooperation package and even agreed to come to Russia for the third time to attend the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in early September.

It is obvious that this succession of meetings between the two leaders, with their number already in the double digits, reflects the bid by the Japanese prime minister to build a trust-based relationship with Putin and achieve a favorable resolution of the long-standing territorial dispute regarding the four Kuril Islands.

In fact, after the latest meeting with Putin, Abe said that he was confident that the territorial dispute with Russia would be resolved. For Japan, these expectations are primarily linked to expanding economic cooperation, which could impact the territorial dispute in a positive way. Japanese experts argue that Tokyo’s confidence in the efficacy of its economic leverage was heightened by the struggling Russian economy and a downturn in the price of oil, depreciation of the ruble and a high inflation rate. Tokyo also believes that Putin’s eastern pivot policy benefits Japan by prioritizing the development of Russia’s Far East and Siberia with their abundant natural resources. Right after the Sochi talks, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko said: “We, of course, believe that peace treaty negotiations and joint economic projects with Russia should be conducted in parallel.” It should be noted, however, that it is not the territorial dispute that stands in the way of sizeable economic progress in Russian-Japanese economic relations, but the need to substantially improve Russia’s investment climate, including by removing all kinds of administrative barriers, streamlining customs laws, making it easier to obtain visas and work permits, etc. During the meeting with Abe, Putin took note that Japanese companies are eager to gain a foothold in the Russian market, and promised to do all it takes to facilitate their efforts.

After the meeting with the Russian president, the Japanese prime minister said, without giving details: “We agreed to resolve the peace treaty issue by ourselves as we seek to build a future-oriented relationship. We will proceed with the negotiations with a new approach, free of any past ideas.”

However, Japanese officials were quick to say that the adoption of a “new approach” does not imply any changes in Japan’s initial position on recovering ownership of the disputed islands — Iturup, Kunashir and Shikotan, as well as the Habomai islets group off northeast Hokkaido.

Moreover, Japan is also limited in its proposals regarding enhancing economic cooperation with Russia due to its close ties with the US and other Western countries who criticize Russia for its actions in Ukraine. US President Barack Obama has more than once personally called on Abe to refrain from meeting with Putin. After the Sochi talks with Putin, the US Department of State reminded Tokyo that “continued unity” among partners remains vital. Against this background, Japan has to find ways to balance between closer ties with Russia and its commitment to the West, which sanctions Russia for its actions toward Crimea.

It should be noted that apart from the interest in resolving the territorial dispute, China and North Korea are also important factors pushing Japan into Russia’s arms. Japanese experts believe that Japan is currently facing a mounting threat from both China and North Korea with its missile and nuclear capabilities, arguing that a permanent dialogue between Russian and Japanese leaders and a will to improve relations are important in terms of countering these threats and building a stable and safe international order in Northeast Asia. To call a spade a spade, Tokyo is concerned about the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing in various areas, and would like to pull Russia away from China, especially since the latter’s relationship with Japan is quite tense.

As for Abe’s “new approach” to Russian-Japanese relations, even without knowing what the Japanese prime minister actually means, judging by Russia’s unwavering demand to recognize the legitimacy of its claim to the disputed islands as an outcome of the Second World War, some Japanese experts have begun to think that this approach is unlikely to yield any results in the foreseeable future.
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