Update on Japan-Russia Relations


From July to December 2013, Topics of the Month carried a series of statements by Togo Kazuhiko and rejoinders on Japan-Russia relations. In the month of April 2014 we are revisiting the previous Topics of the Month themes to update coverage. This is advisable because of new developments related to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and the response of Japan as well as to recent discussions in Washington, DC led by Matthew Ouimet and Togo, respectively. We consider how prospects for successful resolution of the territorial dispute and a breakthrough in relations are now faring.

The impression in January and February was relatively positive that both Putin and Abe were prepared to compromise on their countries’ longstanding dispute. Despite the aggravation of bilateral relations in 2009-2011, the tone had changed. First, seeing Japan in energy distress after the disaster of March 11, 2011, Russia was beckoning to it. Second, Putin in early 2012 made appealing overtures, to which Japan’s leaders responded in a more flexible manner than at any time since 2001. Finally, Abe made diplomacy with Russia a priority, leading to his April 2013 visit to Russia and about a year of quiet diplomacy. In the second half of 2013 diplomacy proceeded slowly; however, raising doubts in many minds that an agreement could be reached. Four issues appeared most troublesome: 1) what is alpha in an agreement that returns 2 islands to Japan plus something else that allows Abe to justify abandoning demands for the other two islands in a batch and in their entirety? 2) what interest groups are most likely to resist or support a deal—Japanese fishing concerns, the Russian military, local leaders and public opinion in Russia or Japan? 3) is there an energy deal in the offing that will grease the wheels of negotiations, as Japan weans itself some off nuclear energy and Russia rushes to beat the consequences of the shale revolution through increased exports of natural gas to Asian states; and 4) does the growing impact in each country of historical memory, turning attention back to the 1940s, complicate a deal because their territorial issue and also their brazenness in reinterpreting wartime behavior may make what is already a symbol of national identity more emotional? Observers were awaiting more clarity on these issues.

Optimists about an agreement speculated that an alpha was within reach, whether a compromise on Kunashiri as the third island, compensation to Japan in the form of fishing rights, or some form of joint development and joint rights. They also found both a geopolitical and geo-economic rationale for Putin and Abe, both alienated by the primary driving force in their region—the EU and China, respectively—,making common cause. Perhaps, the trickiest element in optimistic calculations was the way national identity, including historical memory, would impinge on negotiations. With the United States overshadowing other elements in their thinking about the external environment, would the fact that Putin and Abe are diametrically opposed on how they want the United States to behave—a subdued vs. an assertive power—matter?

Through 2013, Togo made the case for why an agreement was within reach, although he cautioned against many potential obstacles, as readers of Topics of the Month are no doubt aware. On March 7, speaking to a group in Washington, he expressed concern that by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine Abe had deviated from the thinking of the prior year that prioritized realism and recognized that China poses an existential threat, requiring undivided attention instead of diversions that strengthened its position. In the following two months, rising discord between Japan and both the United States and South Korea served China’s interests at Japan’s expense. With Abe meeting with Putin in the shadow of the Sochi Winter Olympics; however, optimism persisted that progress would follow, culminating in Putin’s expected visit to Japan in the fall. As both leaders felt increasingly isolated, they would strategically turn to each other and recognize the enhanced value of reaching an agreement. This notion of shared isolation breathed some additional hope into forecasts for the year 2014.

Although there was a certain logic to a breakthrough in Russo-Japanese relations, in early 2014, even before the crisis in Ukraine, a different logic was gaining ground. If Abe was so obsessed with history and identity, as was now clear, and was keen on restarting Japan’s nuclear reactors, diminishing the need for large new supplies of Russian energy, why would he make a deal, which many would criticize as bringing the assured return of only two islands if Putin’s intentions are correctly read? Those who saw this as means to check China’s assertiveness found little support in Russian discussions of international relations. Even more clearly, if Putin was so determined to rebuild the former Soviet Union or some proximity to it, was there much benefit to pursuing Japan, when it would have to side with the United States and the EU in the showdowns to come? Trumping the realist and liberal arguments for boosting relations, national identity had potential to narrow the divide, as Russia and Japan both sought proof of Asianism to balance Western identity, but it had much greater potential for widening the gap in their thinking, as became evident in March 2014.

While Japanese are so alarmed by China and sufficiently distracted by other symbols of national identity or apathetic toward them, Russians are hypersensitive to almost any symbol of sovereignty or territorial loss. There is no Russian debate on Japan or government advocate, as far as can be discerned, for a pragmatic compromise. Putin seems much more interested in arousing emotional nationalist views, not appealing to balanced perspectives on how to achieve a balance of power in Northeast Asia. In the Ukraine crisis, the forces that put Japan-Russia talks in jeopardy intensified. The strongman Putin has aroused Russian emotions against almost the entire world to a feverish pitch, and Abe had no choice but to join the US-led coalition against him.

The month of March brought bad news to those who had hoped for a breakthrough. Russia’s annexation of Crimea by force set a precedent that China could use for the seizure of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. At the G7 meeting in the shadow of the nuclear security summit in The Hague, Abe warned that this is an issue that affects the entire international community including Asia, objecting to changing the status quo by force. While he called for continued dialogue with Russia over Ukraine and left the door open to pursue further bilateral talks on the territorial dispute as well as related matters, his agreement to suspend Russia from what had been the G8 and indications that Japan’s foreign minister would postpone a planned April trip to Russia after talks on an investment pact had been suspended, served as setbacks to relations. Earlier in March the Japanese government was hesitant in its criticisms, as it tried to avoid an end to the courtship, but in The Hague the alternative of allowing distance to open between Japan and the West on a vital matter of security or values proved unpalatable when Japan was being insistent on its place in the international community. It is hard to discern a way forward in 2014 after this serious setback.

Igor Sechin, one of Putin’s closest advisors and the CEO of Rosneft, traveled to some Asian countries in late March, giving credence to arguments that Russia would find new markets in Asia as relations soured with the West. Yet, his stop in Japan, where he dangled visions of billions in new energy trade, was badly timed. Instead Russian hopes centered on China and India, neither of which had criticized the annexation of Crimea or seemed to disagree with the claim that Russia was restoring its historical rights—a different way of drawing a parallel to Taiwan. As Putin prepared to travel to China in May, a long-elusive natural gas deal seemed more likely. Not only would Putin be less inclined to seek a Japanese partnership as a means to multipolarity, he would be more likely to draw closer to China, another setback for Japan’s diplomacy.

If Abe were to keep the door to Putin, it would be tempting for the Russian leader to try to split the G7 and Japan from its ally. Yet, having already made a move in his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine that aroused distrust in Washington over whether he was mindful of US strategic interests. Abe’s second move on an issue of consequence in just a short time could shake the alliance. Prospects once again looked grim for a breakthrough in relations between Tokyo and Moscow.

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