Japan-Russia Relations – 4


September and early October have been relatively calm months, but nevertheless, both in international events and in the rejoinders that we have received in this forum, there were some developments worthy of serious thought. First about the views expressed in the rejoinders of Celine Pajon and Hyodo Shinji, both indicated cautious optimism for the state of peace treaty negotiations. Each indicated some structural reasons that would bring Japan and Russia closer. Pajon mentioned “energy cooperation and balance of power in Asia,” and Hyodo analyzed, in detail, security factors regarding rising Chinese military power, which structurally bring Japan and Russia closer, as symbolized by the “2+2” meeting to be held in November in Tokyo.

The major event that took place in this period was Abe and Putin’s meeting on October 7 in Bali, on the fringe of the APEC leaders’ meeting. According to the Kremlin website, Putin reminded Abe about the launching of the “2+2” meeting in November and told of his general satisfaction about the developing economic cooperation, notably that “The joint economic fund that we agreed on at one of our earlier meetings has begun its work and has already received bids for financing for more than $10 billion.”1 At the press conference Putin held on October 8, he stated, “the speed of trade increase between Japan and Russia now equals the one between Russia and China” (Mainichi shimbun, Oct. 9). Furthermore on peace treaty negotiations, he stated “it is distinctly possible to realize the peace treaty with Japan. We are working based on a realistic plan. There is a need to find a friendly approach and not an antagonistic one.” (Kyodo tsushin, Oct. 8).

Certainly not everything justifies optimism. I would like to follow Pajon’s two lines of analysis, first on nationalist causes in both Russia and Japan, and second on the China factor. On the nationalist cause it seems that this month revealed that there is emerging a certain gap between what Putin is indicating and how the Russian bureaucracy is responding. At the meeting in Bali, when Abe stated that “the meeting at the vice-ministers’ level should be convened as soon as possible,” Putin apparently just responded that “there could be a thorough talk with Foreign Minister Lavrov when he goes to Japan in his “2+2” meeting in November.” (Sankei shimbun, Oct. 8). This is a somewhat amazing statement because if meetings of the mind and communications were proceeding smoothly at the working level, it is simply impossible to imagine that this discussion would be reserved for the Lavrov visit. Furthermore what presidential spokesman Peskov explained to the Russian press corps after the Abe-Putin meeting, that “those who were given instructions at the working level are not catching up to the leaders’ schedule” (Asahi shimbun, Oct. 10) is an astonishing acknowledgement that something is wrong at the working level in Russia.

One more episode points to the rigid mood at the Russian working level. Yamamoto Ichita, Minister of State for Okinawa and Northern Territories Affairs, joined the “no-visa” scheme and visited Kunashiri and Etorofu on September 20-23, behaving cautiously to the satisfaction of Russians in Kunashiri (Hokkaido shimbun, Sept. 21). He held a press conference in Nemuro upon his return, where he stated, “There is no need for jumping up and down and we need to continue tenaciously the negotiations.” That was the major line reported in Japanese newspapers, and some reported that for elderly former islanders, the line was too soft (Hokkaiodo shimbun, Sept. 24). But on September 26, the Russian Foreign Ministry Information Bureau issued an official statement, directing attention to Yamamoto’s statement at the press conference that “I renewed my longing for the return of these islands,” and declared that a “political statement that touches the delicate issue of the conclusion of the peace treaty is outside the agreement to conduct the negotiations peacefully and contradicts it.” Suga, the Cabinet General Secretary, stated at his press conference on September 27 that “Yamamoto has not stated anything which contradicts the ‘no-visa system.’” For most Japanese, including myself, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s reaction to Yamamoto’s cautious behavior casts doubt on the capability or willingness of some of the Russian professionals dealing with Japan. All these incidents prove Pajon’s observation to be correct. There is something not right, not befitting Putin’s directive to Russian working-level officials to proceed to resolve the territorial issue. In fact, this is one of the reasons why Panov and I thought we needed to rock the boat in July.

What is going on? I had better be cautious because I have very little evidence, and my statements would become speculative. But because of reluctance to tackle a difficult issue creatively, fear that the Russian right may not support any transfer of islands to Japan, incompetence in failing to know even the minimum of what is happening in Japan, or nationalist conviction that current negotiations should be terminated, the reactions which we now see from the Russian working level are not positive.

Pajon also raises the issue of nationalist feelings in Japan that are shared by even young academicians. I have a somewhat different take on this. So far as I can judge, anti-Russian nationalist feelings, which are determined to prevent any outcome other than the “four islands in a bunch” solution, are diminishing. The changing strategic environment, in which China has very clearly became the number one threat, is affecting a wide range of Japanese thinking, including our nationalist right. Instinctively, people are adjusting their strategic thinking and are looking for some solution with Russia based on compromise. Putin’s friendly messages from 2011 have been reported in Japan in a favorable light, and, arguably, his positive image is much more substantial than in America or Europe, where his autocratic and anti-democratic behavior is causing serious irritation. Saiki, Vice-Minister; Sugiyama, Deputy-Minister for political matters; Kozuki, Director-General of the European Affairs Bureau; and Ishii, Director General of the International Legal Affairs Bureau, are all top, experienced diplomats, who have not been idle. If there should be a problem on the Japanese side, it would be whether they are doing everything they can to seek all avenues on the Russian side to break the ice to create a conducive environment and the personal rapport that would maximize the prospects of finding a mutually acceptable hikiwake solution.

The next issue is China. Pajon is totally justified in asking “what are the risks of playing on the argument of a ‘Chinese threat’ in justifying the rapprochement between Tokyo and Moscow?” I have always tried to maintain that if there is one country that best understands the nature of China’s rise, it should be Russia. The 4,000-kilometer border, which they share in Siberia and the Russian Far East is, more than any other country, giving Russia an instinctive understanding of the rising strength of China. From there emerges golden rule number one for the Russians, “never to provoke China, never to irritate China, any agreement which is in the Russian national interest must be concluded fast before it gets too late.” I think that this is exactly the policy implemented by Putin. Just reading and comparing the Kremlin’s website reporting on meetings with Abe and Xi Jinping, which took place on the same day, October 7, gives a fair comparison of the relative importance of Japan and China for Russia.2 The wide and deep development between Russia and China shown on the website far exceeds the state of Japan-Russia relations, and both sides are not hiding an inch of that situation. Furthermore, that website does not spare a long paragraph of Xi’s statement on Russia-China cooperation fighting fascist enemies:

“During the SCO summit in Bishkek, you suggested that in 2015, we jointly commemorate the 70th anniversary of victory in World War II. I agree with your suggestion that China and Russia can hold these celebratory anniversary events together in honor of our common victory. I think we should give corresponding instructions to the appropriate departments, so that they can begin preparations for these important events as soon as possible. We feel that such a joint event would have major, long-term significance. You see, during the years of that war, Russia, the Russian people, and China, and our people suffered terrible losses for the sake of our common victory. Russia made great sacrifices for victory and made an enormous input into the anti-fascist war. Russia provided us a great deal of assistance in the war. And we will never forget this.”

Putin’s response is not shown on the Internet. But it is no secret that the country against which Xi is proposing to celebrate is Japan. Since Xi’s statement has, at least, a certain logical consistency, Putin surely is not in a position just to brush it aside. As Rozman has indicated, there certainly is an influential group inside Russia that is willing to push this China-friendly policy earnestly. Therefore I strongly argue that Japan needs to be careful not to do anything provocative against the Russian position on China. A naïve “China card” statement is not only foolish, but also dangerous in undermining the basis of improved relations between Japan and Russia. Furthermore, in the current tense situation, it is becoming all the more important for Japan to do everything possible to normalize its relations with China, even for the sake of creating a stronger basis for negotiations with Russia.

And yet all of these considerations do not negate the importance of one of the bases of rapprochement between Russia and Japan: China. The reason is structural. China is rising so fast in all aspects, including military ones. This creates concern in countries around the region. Talking about this bilaterally may not be necessary. One understands and acts. The outcome is a friendlier and more dynamic relationship between Japan and Russia. That is enough. This already answers the second question on China that Pajon asks: “Would Russia have to provide any kind of quid pro quo or reassurance to China if it wants to conclude a peace treaty with Japan?” It goes without saying that a peace treaty between Japan and Russia does not include any clauses that harm any other country, including China and the United States, and that China is not in a position to respond negatively when Russia and Japan are following in its footsteps, when it resolved its territorial problems with Russia based on a principle of compromise. If China were to show power-politics dissatisfaction toward Russia drawing closer to Japan and tried to pressure Russia not to follow this line, no Russians that I know would be pleased. The possibility of being forced to find a quid pro quo is very low.

1. “Meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe,” President of Russia—News, October 7, 2013, http://eng.news.kremlin.ru/news/6087 (accessed October 12, 2013).

2. Ibid.

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