Japan-Russia Relations – 1


Abe’s Visit to Moscow: Can It Become the Beginning of an End?

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit to Moscow on April 28-30, 2013, can generally be considered a “success,” which could be a real starting point for Japan and Russia to reach an agreement that has eluded them since the 1950s. Yet failure to act, as has occurred so many times in the past, could easily shut down this window of opportunity in a manner more conclusive than at any point since, at least, early in the 1990s. I argue below and in the background article, which appears in this month’s Open Forum, that this visit came at a decisive moment for both countries, and that their ability to work together for improved relations now serves as a far-reaching test of how strategic their leaders are in foreign affairs.

Vladimir Putin’s position in dealing with Japan was already made amply clear a year ago on March 1, 2012, four days before he was re-elected as president of Russia. In an interview to the representatives of G-8 media, including Wakamiya Yoshibumi of Asahi Shimbun, Putin stated that when re-elected he wanted to drastically improve relations with Japan through substantially strengthening economic relations and through resolving the territorial issue based on the principle of a “draw” (hikiwake). Given his desire to create a strong Russia, economically and militarily, where China is rising in its backdrop, Putin’s resolve to break the ice with Japan is strategic and understandable, sending a signal to Japan’s leaders that the time is ripe to take action.

Abe Shinzo’s positive echo in responding once he took office as prime minister to Putin’s urging is also strategic and intelligible. Japan’s surrounding international environment is going through gigantic change never foreseen in the 68 years since the end of the Second World War. The rise of China, embodied in the form of a military threat to the Senkaku (to Chinese the Diaoyu) Islands, is becoming imprinted in the consciousness of the Japanese public. National policy is geared as quickly as possible to engender a new Japan, able to cope with the new situation but still fundamentally pacifist. In this time of dramatic change, on the one hand, Japan’s China policy based on deterrence and dialogue, has become critical, but on the other hand, improving and strengthening relations with surrounding countries is also becoming Japan’s compelling strategic objective.

The United States is Japan’s first priority, but it does not suffice. Developing closer ties with Asian neighbors has been a continuous goal from the postwar era, and its priority keeps growing. The natural choice in the face of China’s uncertain intentions is to put Japan’s two closest neighbors—Russia and South Korea—next in priority, followed by ASEAN and other Eurasian and Asia-Pacific countries. To Japanese strategic thinkers, there is growing interest in Russia as a partner in cooperation, particularly in a situation where several regrettable policy mistakes are hampering Japan’s relations with South Korea. This is the background to the Abe visit to Moscow, which was widely understood as aimed at a breakthrough against the background of a complex regional environment.

From an economic point of view, the relatively unexplored Russian market, due to caution by the business community and a frozen political relationship, now looms as a magnet for greater investment. It is said that oversupply in the world natural-gas market causing Russia to look harder for consumers and a spike in Japan’s demand for natural gas after its nuclear catastrophe on March 11, 2011, create a “perfect symbiosis” for energy trade.

The timing of this visit cannot but be considered essential. Already one year has passed since Putin’s first statement for substantial improvement of the relationship. He needs a swift success given the complex domestic situation, and if Japan fails to move swiftly, as was the case in prior years, there would surely be no reason for him to wait.

The documents adopted and the decisions taken at Abe’s visit to Moscow gave an impetus to negotiations. The agreement to establish a 2+2 mechanism of consultations between the two foreign ministers and two defense ministers even surprised defense foreign policy specialists: only the United States, as early as from 1990, and Australia, as of June 2007 under Abe’s first cabinet, have been given that status in Japan. A powerful business group of around 50 people, including top economic leaders from the Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC), Sumitomo, Toshiba, and Japan Agriculture Cooperation Group accompanied the prime minister. A new platform, devised by JBIC, the Russian External Economic Bank (VEB), and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) was created to encourage Japanese investment. According to Russian sources, investment projects such as smart city, radioactive medicine, agriculture, and transportation seem promising, awaiting the first joint investment project to be realized by the end of the year. The communique did not fail to mention that, based on the agreed documents in the 2003 Action Plan, “the two leaders agreed to instruct their respective foreign ministries to expedite the negotiations to devise a mutually agreeable solution to resolve the issue of a peace treaty and to report to the two leaders.”

In addition, an accidental question at the very end of the press conference by the two leaders revealed an important message on the part of Putin in dealing with Japan. A Japanese correspondent asked the two leaders how each evaluated the negative impact to the territorial negotiations of Russian investment in the four islands. Obviously irritated by this “provocative” question, Putin started off saying that the correspondent should report the person who gave him the paper which he read in raising this question, then conveyed his message that if one wants to behave harshly and provocatively he has every means with which to reciprocate, “but we did not gather here to discuss it today. Instead, we gathered to renew peace treaty negotiations and find ways to solve this problem (quoting from his web-site).”

Putin’s response gave an impression of personal determination to do something about the difficult issue. Media reports in Japan were regrettably mute, but experts on Russian affairs conveyed to the author a very positive impression on the part of the president. There is a basis to conclude that the meeting left Putin with sufficient hope to continue negotiations with some impetus and forged a personal bond between the two leaders to jointly tackle the difficult issue that has separated the two sides for such a long time.

The essential question emerges: would Japan and Russia succeed in making a real breakthrough? In this series of commentaries, I argue that the answer is “yes,” provided that the two governments are able to act courageously in broadening and deepening the overall scope of the relationship and pay due attention to the following three aspects of the peace treaty negotiations.

First, particularly at the foreign ministry level, the two sides have to be creative. Putin has already given a positive definition of a “mutually agreeable solution,” namely a “draw,” “the negotiations shall be done not to win but not to lose.” What is the solution on the basis of which neither side concludes that it has lost? A one-sided drastic solution has to be excluded. The long-time image of “four-islands in a bunch” in Japan, namely to secure the sovereignty of the four islands simultaneously, means a total loss for Russia. The 1956 Joint Declaration to settle this issue with the two smaller islands, about which Putin spoke eloquently in March 2012, is a courageous position to set before the Japanese side that deserves full respect.

But the political reality in Japan dictates that if Russia takes the position of “Habomai and Shikotan islands only” as its maximum concession, Abe would not be able to say to Japan’s domestic audience that this solution does not make Japan a loser. He would not be able to respond to the question of why Japan should accept the same proposal it had rejected in 1956. Thus, it would be up to the negotiators to find a format acceptable to both, determining the missing link of “alpha” related to Kunashiri and Etorofu, the two larger islands. In this quest for the missing link, it is essential that the two sides do not take the position of adversaries negotiating a zero-sum game. They need to sit down together, brainstorming on a solution that does not make either a loser.

Second, the negotiations have entered an extremely delicate phase. The Japanese side should be aware, in particular, that any leakage to the press about their contents and the input of top leaders, foreign ministers, and top diplomats should be categorically closed. If Abe cannot find a way to control whoever is in a position to know the gist of the negotiations, and overcome Japan’s notorious reputation of not being able to preserve confidentiality, the negotiations can hardly be productive.

Third, there is the question of timing. There is already emerging reports from both sides that since this is a difficult issue that could not be resolved in 68 years after the end of the Second World War, the two sides should cautiously advance the negotiations without precipitating. In a way there is an important wisdom in it. But that cautiousness in no way should allow the two sides not to exert maximum efforts to detect a mutually acceptable solution. Precisely because of the sensitivity involved, negotiators have to act thoughtfully but swiftly. Judging all situations into account on both sides, the time left for negotiators would probably be confined to a year or two. Should they fail to reach a mutually acceptable solution within this period, both countries should be aware that for the foreseeable future, a better opportunity to resolve this issue would not arrive.

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