Russian-Japanese Rapprochement as an Accomplishment of the Two Countries' Leaders
Valdai Discussion Club Conference Hall (Bolshaya Tatarskaya 42, Moscow, Russia
List of speakers

For the first time in a long period there is prospect of qualitative improvement in the relations between Russia and Japan. This is the opinion of the authors of the Valdai Club report, titled " The Russian-Japanese Rapprochement: Opportunities and Limitations". The report’s presentation and the expert discussion took place on August 31, 2017.

Andrei Sushentsov, Programme director of the Valdai Discussion Club, noted, that over the past several years there was a positive dynamics in relations between the two countries and an unprecedented attention to the search for mutual understanding.

"At the same time Russia makes it clear that it will not do a compromise on the territorial issue under pressure, but is ready for it in the course of a large-scale process of the bilateral relations improvement," the expert said. According to him, for Russia it is paramount to attract Japanese investments to the Russian Far East and diversify its economic ties in the Asian region.

Anna Kireeva, associate professor of the Department of Oriental Studies of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke about the motivation of the Japanese side. Premier Shinzo Abe would like to go down in history as the leader who solved one of the key issues of the Japanese agenda - a territorial dispute with Russia, and in this way to draw a line under the results of the Second World War. Moreover, according to the expert, the resolution of the territorial dispute will allow Japan to strengthen its role in East Asia, including in the security issue on the Korean peninsula.

"Now Russia and Japan are creating a foundation for possible buildup of a strategic cooperation," Anna Kireeva said.

However, experts agreed that the key feature of bilateral relations at the current stage is their extreme dependence on the personal mutual sympathies between the leaders of Russia and Japan.

Professor Dmitry Streltsov, head of the Department of Oriental Studies at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, explained, that the establishment of relations with Russia on the Japanese domestic political arena is the personal project of Prime Minister Abe, his personal merit and, ultimately, his personal resource.

"Russia has become for Prime Minister Abe one of the few trump cards that he can present to the society, and increase his domestic political credit. In the eyes of the Japanese public, he is actively making efforts to solve the most complicated issue," the expert said. But the problem is that other clans are not very interested in normalizing relations with Russia. A similar situation, according to Streltsov, is observed in Russia - the establishment lacks large political and economic groups that are interested in developing relations with Japan.

According to Andrei Sushentsov, in the Russian establishment there are no key interesants in the normalization of relations with Japan, except the president.

Taisuke Abiru, senior representative of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) in Moscow, agreed that relations with Russia are one of the priorities for the Japanese prime minister, but he called the process of Russian-Japanese rapprochement rather fragile. Among possible threats he pointed to both the internal political situation in Japan and external factors.

"Russia has great expectations from Japan in the development of Siberia and the Far East. The Japanese government, including the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), will do everything possible to support Japanese private companies in these regions. However, the joint economic activities of Russia and Japan are unlikely to add support for Prime Minister Abe in the domestic political field," the expert said. He explained that from the point of view of the domestic political context, the prime minister's talks about such economic activity are perceived as a concession to Russia.

Another possible threat, according to Taisuke Abiru, is the situation around North Korea. Japan supports the US approach, which means to increase pressure on North Korea, and Russia supports China's position that the US should ease tensions.

"Russia and Japan have absolutely opposite approaches on this matter," the expert noted, noting that this could have an undesirable effect on the positive atmosphere in bilateral relations created by the leaders of Russia and Japan.

According to the Japanese expert, Premier Abe agreed with the position of the Russian president that we are at the initial stage of the process in bilateral relations, which will lead to the solution of the territorial issue.

"This is a long process of confidence building," Taisuke Abiru said.

Speaking about the restraining role of China and the US in the context of the development of Russian-Japanese relations, Andrei Sushentsov expressed confidence that Russia can not sacrifice its ties with China, a key partner in Asia.

"Any measures that could prompt Russia to sacrifice its cooperation with China  will not be accepted by Moscow”, Sushentsov said.

Dmitry Streltsov, in his turn, drew attention to the long-term trend, when both Russia and Japan are becoming less ideologized in their foreign policy and increasingly pragmatic. Pragmatism in defending its national interests, according to the expert, will allow Russia and Japan not to be held hostage to their relations with China and the United States.

In conclusion, Andrei Sushentsov expressed hope, that the process of Russian-Japanese rapprochement will be progressive, and no external factors, including the situation around the Korean peninsula and turbulence in the USA will not have a negative impact on it.