Japan-Russia Relations – 2


Two commentaries were made by Iwashita Akihiro and Konstantin Sarkisov, both long-time experts on Japan-Russia relations whom I respect. Iwashita’s comments are mostly related to the evaluation of Japan-Russia relations from the Cold War to the present, obliging me to explain why I see certain things as I do and why I cannot agree with some of his points. First, I will start with responses to Sarkisov’s comments, which touch upon the immediate future of Japan-Russia relations and serve also to put in context some of Iwashita’s comments on the future.

Sarkisov concludes that I have an “optimistic” view on the current state of Japan-Russia relations. To be sure, I tried to make the following points: Putin made a clear statement in March 2012 to resolve the territorial issue based on the principle of a “draw”; for almost a full year the Japanese side did not do anything, and this delay is impermissible for the resolution of this drawn-out issue; and Abe’s April visit was important just to maintain a fragile momentum. I left no doubt that I hope that this momentum will now be maintained, and I warned that if the two governments fail to do so, there is a distinct possibility that the window of opportunity will be closed for the foreseeable future. I expressed my strong hope for determined movement to find a resolution, but nowhere did I predict that this would surely happen.

Regrettably, I agree with Sarkisov that over nearly four months that have passed there has been no sign that things have really begun to take off. In fact at the time that I made my previous posting, I already had this fear that again negotiators might fail to act and “miss” the existing opportunity. The principal reason why on July 18 former ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov and I made our joint proposal to Nezavisjmaya gazeta was our joint fear that, once again, those in charge of negotiations were remiss in not seizing an evident opportunity. We began to have this fear already in early June, and it took more than a month to coordinate our views and come up with that joint proposal. We wanted to stimulate the negotiators by showing in a concrete format where both sides could claim, “I have not lost.” The logic was that Japan would gain something more than the two smaller islands, and Russia would not lose four islands in a bunch. In order to add a sense of realism, Panov and I decided to look for a formula within the existing proposals that the two sides have already made and not from our “creative or imaginative ideas.” So our joint proposal became an amalgam of the 1956 Joint Declaration and the Russian proposal made in November 1998: the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan (the smaller islands) to Japan and the creation of a new scheme with joint jurisdiction over Kunashiri and Etorofu (the larger islands). We wanted to show the outcome of one evening in early June, when Panov and I sat at a quiet restaurant in Tokyo, when I asked, “what is a solution for Russia not to lose?” and he asked, “what is a solution for Japan not to lose?” It was this approach that we wanted to encourage our negotiators to adopt in the negotiations to take place on August 19.

In this context, it may be opportune to look more closely at the April 1998 Kawana proposal made by Hashimoto Ryutaro then, i.e. not returning islands but demarcating a border between Russia and Japan, which Iwashita argued was the only genuine opportunity for a solution of this longstanding issue. First, I should clarify what I consider to be a real “opportunity for a solution.” My thinking draws on the theory of International Relations (IR) of Kenneth Waltz,1 and the “three images” (later more often referred to as “three layers” in other IR books) that he describes: namely that in order to have a solution, there is a need for: 1) an international power structure conducive to change in the status quo; 2) a domestic power structure of leaders sufficiently strong and stable to make audacious decisions; and 3) sufficiently creative ideas by the decision makers to meet the conditions for a solution. I assume that Iwashita was referring particularly to the third factor that Hashimoto proposed a totally new idea to achieve a no loser solution. (On the first condition, there was very clearly an international situation conducive to a change in the status quo in conjunction with NATO’s expansion to the east, and on the second condition, Hashimoto was a powerful prime minister with the LDP gaining full power, and Yeltsin was so perceived from March 1997 till May 1998.)

Was the Kawana proposal such a breakthrough proposal? The answer is “yes, in spirit,” but “no, in its concrete format.” Why yes in spirit? It was not just born out of the blue, but it was the result of strenuous efforts made by many MOFA officials under the leadership of Hashimoto over more than a year. Its spirit is best shown in Hashimoto’s speech at Keizai Doyukai on July 24, 1997, articulating the three principles of trust, mutual interest, and long-term perspective to govern Japan-Russia relations, and how Hashimoto applied these three principles to the territorial negotiations, particularly in relation to the second principle, as he explained it:

“It is my deep conviction that the resolution of the territorial issue cannot be achieved with a format that one side becomes a winner and the other side becomes a loser. The two countries have spent almost fifty years to understand this principle, which sounds so natural when stated. I am going to wrack my brain, together with President Yeltsin to identify a solution which embodies this principle.”2

I refrain from explaining in detail the background of how these paragraphs were actually prepared. Suffice it to say that as deputy-director of the European Department I was closely involved in drafting them. From that time, until we made the Kawana proposal in April 1998, all who were involved worked with genuine intentions to produce a format that would meet the spirit of that speech. When finally that Kawana format was formulated we sincerely believed that a no-winner, no-loser format had been found. Yeltisn’s personal positive response at Kawana underlined that feeling. Everybody on the Japanese side, including myself, did our best to sell the Kawana proposal to our Russian counterparts, but, increasingly, it became apparent that everybody on the Russian side except for the president was of the view that delineation of the borderline between Etorofu and Uruppu was a continuation of the “four islands in a bunch” solution. It was first replaced by the three-page proposal in November 1998 and then by Putin’s new approach in September 2000 to recognize the 1956 Joint Declaration. Incidentally, these two proposals became the basis of the Togo-Panov 2013 joint proposal.

By September 2000 the formal content of Kawana apparently had lost all its vigor, but the spirit of Kawana survived very clearly in Putin’s administration, and took the form of the Irkutsk agreement, and eleven years later in 2012 was reproduced in Putin’s press statement in March. The similarity of Hashimoto’s 1997 speech and Putin’s press statement in 2012 is striking, even for a newcomer to this complicated issue.

So how was the Togo-Panov proposal, which was straightforwardly drafted with the spirit of Kawana in mind, received in Japan? There is one correction needed in what Sarkisov wrote. The Japanese government did not refuse this joint proposal. The reaction by Suga, Cabinet General Secretary, was quite restrained and balanced in his July 19 press conference.3 He said that since this is a proposal made by private citizens the government is not going to comment on it. This is quite natural and understandable. And then he just repeated the most basic official position that Japan aims to “resolve the four islands issue through the conclusion of a peace treaty.” It should be noted that this long-standing formula is different from the “four islands in a bunch” formula requesting at a minimum that the sovereignty of four islands be transferred to the Japanese side. Here theoretically “resolving” could imply all sorts of solutions, Several Japanese newspapers showed an interest in making a report on this joint proposal. I have personally received quite a number of responses, most of them encouraging our exercise, none implying criticism of our joint endeavor.

Then, will this joint proposal have some impact in stimulating Russian and Japanese negotiators to become really engaged in a genuine search for a no-loser solution on August 19? Naturally, I do not know. As for the three layers of IR that I discussed above, I think that there are objective conditions both in layer one international power politics and layer two the domestic power situation of the leaders in both countries, who are in a position to take decisive action based on their will and courage analyzed in layer three. Sarkisov rightly raised several misgivings, but they do not seem convincing enough to tell us in a determinist way that hope for a solution has been eradicated at layer one and two. Thus the outcome of the negotiations still depend on layer three, whether negotiators, of their own free will, would be able to come up with convincing ideas for the two leaders to make a decision in the not too distant future.

1. Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War: A Theoretical Analysis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954).

2. http://www.ioc.u-tokyo.ac.jp/~worldjpn/documents/texts/exdpm/19970724.S1J.html (accessed August 16, 2013).

3. http://www.kantei.go.jp/jp/tyoukanpress/201307/19_a.html (accessed August 16, 2013).

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