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Talks on Russo–Japanese territorial disputes still going nowhere

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In Brief

On 6 May, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met in Sochi in a bid strengthen trust between the two leaders. Russia and Japan still view each other from the standpoint of the Cold War: for Russia, Japan is first of all the ‘junior partner’ of the United States and a location for US military bases; for Japan, Russia is a permanent source of instability that is unwilling to return its native territories.


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In this context, the Summit meeting was of deep significance to both countries.

Abe’s Sochi visit sends an important message that Japan will maintain relations with Russia, despite the US’ desire to isolate the country following the Ukraine crisis. Abe even ignored a direct request by US President Obama to cancel the meeting.

Japan’s action can be seen as part of a broader strategy to reduce its dependence on US security guarantees by developing a more assertive foreign policy. Improved relations with Russia would both reassure Tokyo about its US relationship and help hedge against the formation of a possible anti-Western Moscow–Beijing axis.

In Moscow, attention has focused on the fact that Japan is breaking ranks with the Western strategy and demonstrating a greater level of flexibility towards Russia. Moscow hopes that Tokyo can play the role of a mediator, conveying Russia’s position to the West. The timing of the visit, on the eve of the G7 Summit, has led some Russian commentators to suggest that Japan may be trying to ‘synchronise watches’ on key issues on the global agenda.

One of the central issues on the summit agenda was, predictably, that of a peace treaty. On the eve of the meeting, Russia also recognised the need to continue discussions with Japan on the territorial dispute — a notable shift from previous statements insisting that the only remaining issue is a peace treaty. Japan seems optimistic that greater political will on the part of the two leaders may lead to a resolution. At the final press conference Abe stated that: ‘We agreed to resolve it [the territorial dispute] while establishing a future-oriented relationship between Japan and Russia.’

But what might this newfound ‘political will’ look like? Abe desires a fresh approach to overcome stalled negotiations on the peace treaty, but offered no specific detail. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stressed that Japan’s new approach does not indicate a change in its position that a peace treaty should be signed only after the territorial dispute is resolved. Japan’s ‘new approach’ seems to be nothing more than a way to demonstrate that both countries intend to move beyond the deadlock.

So is a ‘new approach’ possible? Japan is obviously counting on concessions from Russia in exchange for increased economic ties with Japan and improved relations with the West. But Tokyo may have overestimated Russia’s desire to normalise relations with the West. After all, the worse the relations with the West are, the stronger public support of Putin is.

Most Russians do not understand the essence of the territorial issue, perceiving it solely as a ‘groundless territorial claim’ by Japan. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Putin would transfer any territories to Japan, even within a legally flawless solution. In the eyes of many Russians this would be a betrayal of the memory of their fathers and grandfathers who gave their lives fighting for the disputed islands.

But Putin equally cannot ignore the territorial dispute with Japan as this would harm Russia’s relations with one of its most important diplomatic partners. Recognising the existence of the dispute, and continuing to negotiate, grants Russia greater space for diplomatic manoeuvre.

Likewise, it is not obvious that a solution to the territorial issue is necessarily welcome in Japan. The existence of the dispute allows some Japanese to maintain a sense of psychological comfort on the basis of ‘wounded national dignity’. Japanese administrations have consistently received popular support for upholding the territorial claims.

There are also strong pressure groups interested in perpetuating the problem. Propaganda campaigns for the so-called Northern territories issue receive lavish budget allocations in Japan, while some Hokkaido municipalities are granted huge state subsidies as a result of the dispute. And bureaucrats in the foreign ministries of both countries have made their careers from recycling the same tired arguments on the issue. Against this backdrop, both sides may actually prefer to create the appearance of ‘moving forward’, while actually jogging on the spot.

Dmitry Streltsov is Head of the Department of Asian and African Studies, MGIMO University, Moscow.

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