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Can hot spring diplomacy produce a Japan–Russia deal?

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and his dog named Yume welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Photo: Reuters/Kyodo).

In Brief

Russian President Vladimir Putin will touch down in Nagato on Thursday, in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's home prefecture of Yamaguchi. The visit has been in the making since both leaders returned to the top job in their respective countries in 2012, but postponed in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and subsequent G7 sanctions against Russia.


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On the top of the agenda will be the question of four islands (Iturup/Etorofu, Kunashir/Kunashiri, Shikotan, and Habomai) known in Japan as the Northern Territories and in Russia as the southern Kuril Islands.

Resolving the island dispute could lead to a formal peace treaty between Japan and Russia. That would inject a new dimension into the geopolitics of Asia and the Pacific. The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States may lead to a warming of US–Russia relations. Japan’s diplomacy has gone onto the front foot with Abe making an historic trip to Pearl Harbour and rumours of a trip to Australia next month, months ahead of when it was scheduled. There is sudden urgency to strengthening regional relationships given the uncertainty of Trump’s foreign policy plans.

Having signed a neutrality treaty with Japan in 1941, the Soviet Union belatedly entered into hostilities against Japan in the Second World War, taking control over these islands only in its final days before Japan’s surrender in August 1945. The 17,000 Japanese inhabitants then living there were later expelled to Hokkaido.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty in 1951, which ended the Allied occupation and returned sovereignty to Japan, also left a legacy of instability between Japan and its neighbours as it failed to deal adequately with the question of a number of territories including Senkaku/Diaoyu with China and Takeshima/Dokdo with South Korea as well as the Northern Territories/southern Kurils.

While Japan and Russia negotiated to end their ‘state of war’ in 1956, a formal peace treaty between the two was never concluded as the question of sovereignty of the four islands could not be settled. More than seven decades later Russia retains administrative control and the mostly elderly 6600 former residents still alive today wait in hope that a deal can be struck.

Hopes of a settlement of the northern territories issue have been raised a number of times over the years. As Kazuhiko Togo explains, when Putin was re-elected as president of Russia he declared that ‘Japan–Russia economic relations should be radically advanced and their territorial problem should be resolved based on principles of “draw, par or hikiwake”’; Putin’s use of the Japanese term gave a nod to his love of the Japanese martial art of Judo.

Abe and Putin have made efforts to meet on a number of occasions, including in Sochi and Vladivostok, but after their latest meeting on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Peru both appear to have gone back into containment mode to lower expectations of a positive outcome from the upcoming round of talks. James Brown predicts that ‘the Yamaguchi summit will not deliver a major breakthrough in Japan–Russia relations’. The Japanese newspaper Nikkei has even suggested that one of the reasons that Abe has accepted a visit Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on 26 December is to create a new diplomatic point scoring opportunity, having resigned himself to the fact that a deal will not soon be struck with Russia.

Despite the difficulties, the opportunity of a creative hikiwake solution would benefit not just Japan and Russia but also the region more broadly.

One way in which a deal might be reached, even if the final sovereignty of the islands is not immediately settled, suggests Sourabh Gupta in our lead essay this week, would be for the return of Habomai and Shikotan to be accompanied by the establishment of a special zone of cooperation. This would ‘delineate a set of non-sovereign, private rights that former Japanese residents of Kunashir and Iturup and current Russian residents on Shikotan could permanently enjoy across their administrative boundary once Habomai and Shikotan are transferred to Japan’. This might in time also include the creation of a special economic zone in order to relax visa rules for Japanese residents and businesses.

The opportunity to strike a deal comes as Russian relations with the G7 are at a post-Cold War low after its annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and its alleged hacking of the US Democratic National Committee and interference in the US election. As Russia has become estranged from the West it has turned to China. China for its part, suggest Georgy Toloraya and Dmitri Streltsov, has also ‘tried to take advantage of Russia’s economic difficulties in an attempt to score unilateral benefits, for example, on gas prices’. The promise of Japanese investment to build liquefied natural gas plants, ports, airports, hospitals and other infrastructure, to develop the Russian Far East is appealing, especially given the Russian economy’s reliance on oil and gas exports and its suffering from falling commodity prices exacerbated by G7 sanctions.

Trump will review US foreign policy as he promises to move toward his ‘America First’ approach, with an expectation of some sort of lowering of US engagement in Asia. It is critical that any vacuum left by reduced US engagement in the region is filled with stable cooperative relations. Abe appears to be working overtime on just that. But as Japan looks to deal with these new regional realities, it needs to do so in a way that reinforces the liberal international order on which its own peace and prosperity depends and to do so in a way that promotes stability. The biggest part of the equation is China and Abe’s proactive diplomacy must also extend to its largest neighbour. It may seem a bridge too far for Abe to make an historic trip to Nanjing after Pearl Harbor but he may be the only Japanese leader who could — a move that would make his ultimate goal of constitutional reform easier to swallow for Japan’s neighbours.

A Japan-Russia peace treaty would be an excellent step towards putting to rest the territorial uncertainties left by the legacy of San Francisco and be a major boon against geopolitical instability in Northeast Asia at a time when the regional balance of power is in considerable flux.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel, Amy King and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

One response to “Can hot spring diplomacy produce a Japan–Russia deal?”

  1. The Soviet Union entered the Pacific War more or less in line with its commitment to the Allies to fight Japan within three months of Germany’s defeat.

    In the months leading up to its 9 August declaration of war on Japan, first delivered by Molotov to the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, the Soviets had transported up to 1,600,000 troops to the Soviet border with Manchuria.

    The Soviet Union’s first action after declaring war was to hurl those troops against Japanese forces in Manchuria. This was how ‘the Soviet Union belatedly entered into hostilities against Japan’. It was not/not by seizing the Kurile Islands. That operation did not start until 18 August.

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