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Can Japan and Russia achieve a genuine rapprochement?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at their meeting in Sochi, 6 May 2016 (Photo: Reuters/Sergei Guneev)

In Brief

Since 1945, relations between Japan and Russia have repeated their ‘ups and downs’ many times. The world is again seeing an ‘upturn’, but this time many felt that the two countries might finally make a real breakthrough.


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The ‘upturn’ began in 2012 when Putin and Abe were re-elected to their respective posts. Putin declared that when re-elected as president, Japan–Russia economic relations should be radically advanced and their territorial problem should be resolved based on principles of ‘draw, par or hikiwake’. Upon his own re-election, Abe responded swiftly to this call and brought a powerful economic delegation to Moscow. Talks on all fronts looked to have started, culminating in Abe’s attendance at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

But this ‘upturn’ mood was dashed by the Kiev-Maidan riot at the end of February, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the civil war in eastern Ukraine and Japan’s participation — though on a moderate scale — in G7 sanctions against Russia. Negotiations practically stopped and by the end of 2015 relations seemed to have returned to their nadir of the Cold War Gromyko period reproaches.

Relations again started to warm from the beginning of 2016. Many attributed this ‘upturn’ to Abe’s insistence in improving their relations — even rejecting some suggestions from the White House — and to Putin finding Abe of strategic value when he began acting ‘in defiance of the White House.’ Whatever the real cause, negotiations began again through Putin and Abe’s one-to-one meetings in Sochi in May, Vladivostok in September and Lima in November to prepare for Putin’s visit to Japan in December.

From September onwards, articles began flooding Japanese media about territorial negotiations. Many of them indicated that a possible solution was the long-debated formula of ‘two’ (transfer of the Habomai and Shikotan islands according to the 1956 Joint Declaration) and ‘alpha’ (some agreement on the Kunashiri and Etorofu islands without a transfer of sovereignty). In short, the long-sustained positions of ‘four islands in a bunch’ — that no agreement can be reached without transferring the sovereignty of four islands — would finally be abandoned. This news was accompanied with the announcement of the Japan–Russia eight-point economic plan launched in Sochi and the appointment of a new Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry to officially promote economic relations between the two countries.

This somewhat optimistic mood changed after Abe and Putin’s meeting in Lima. Abe stated in May after the meeting in Sochi that ‘he felt [a] positive response’, that leaders agreed to ‘resolve this issue together’, and that ‘a new approach’ was proposed. These positive words were carried to Vladivostok. But in Lima, Abe simply stated that ‘we can reach agreement only step-by-step’. Putin reportedly stated that ‘timeframe[s] should be avoided’ and that they may begin some ‘joint economic activities on the islands’.

Japanese media immediately began reporting the Japanese government’s reaction that joint economic activities can be implemented if they will not harm respective legal positions. Foreign Minister Kishida’s visit to Moscow in December resulted in mixed reporting that although Putin acknowledged that ‘efforts are being made to expand exchanges on all issues in which both sides are interested’, no reports were made on any realisation of any concrete issues.

Japanese press commentary reduces the sudden cooling to two factors. First, traditional Russian diplomatic toughness has emerged to float wrong expectations initially and then raise the barrier to get what they really want — economic gain from Japan. Second is the election of Trump, who might get along well with Putin, which diminishes Abe’s strategic value. But is this really what is happening?

Let us stay sober at this point. First, actual discussions at the leaders’ talks are kept under a complete ‘black-box’ and talks at the diplomatic level are so well masked that the international community hardly knows who is talking on what. If this is an intentional blockage against media, then there is likely no issue. All current analysis is mainly press speculation.

Second, real negotiations for this round began only after May, and seven months is too short to untie this complicated knot. Both sides may well prefer not to publish anything of substance on the territorial negotiations in December.

Third, both Abe and Putin have some time left in their respective domestic tenure — Abe’s term expires in September 2021, and Putin’s expires in even longer. Good reasons for both not to rush.

Fourth, regarding Japanese press analysis, it is better not to include the ‘Trump factor’ prematurely. It is even more dangerous to rely on Russian raised-barrier speculation. Traditionally, Japan has raised its barrier when the Russian position seemed concessionary.

The two sides will hopefully be wise enough to expedite talks after December and reach a breakthrough through ‘draw or hikiwake’ within the Abe–Putin leadership and in the not too distant future.

Kazuhiko Togo is a Professor of International Politics and the Director of the Institute for World Affairs, Kyoto Sangyo University.

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