Authors: Tsuneo Akaha and Anna Vassilieva, MIIS
According to conventional wisdom regarding Russia–Japan relations there is no prospect for the resolution of the Territorial Dispute between these ‘distant neighbours’ over the Northern Territories/southern Kuril Islands. But the words and actions of both countries’ leaders in recent times may be cause for optimism.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has indicated a willingness to ‘look to the future’, recently declaring that ‘not a single country or nation should live in the past and bask in its heroism forever. This is harmful and dangerous for a nation’s future’. On the same day the Russian deputy foreign minister, Igor Morgulov, and the Japanese ambassador in charge of relations with Russia, Chikahiro Harada, met in Tokyo to discuss the long overdue peace treaty between Russia and Japan as well as the islands dispute.
The two sides have kept quiet about the details of their talks only stating that they would meet next in Moscow, presumably to prepare for Putin’s visit to Tokyo later this year. Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are slated to meet on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in early September, which would provide yet another opportunity for the two leaders to confirm their commitment to continue political dialogue toward a peace treaty.
Japan has long insisted that, as stated in the 1956 Joint Declaration with the Soviet Union, a resolution of the territorial dispute is required to conclude a peace treaty. Putin acknowledged the validity of the Joint Declaration in the so-called Irkutsk Statement he signed with then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on 25 March 2001. And after meeting with Putin in Sochi on 6 May 2016 Abe said that the two leaders ‘agreed to resolve the peace treaty issue’ and that they were seeking ‘a new approach, free of any past ideas’.
Neither Putin nor Abe has elaborated on the specifics of these statements. But there are several factors that point to a possible opening in the impasse.
Putin is in a powerful position to change his country’s approach to the negotiations. His public support is strong and he has firmly established himself as a patriotic leader through what Russia describes as the reincorporation (and Ukraine calls the annexation) of Crimea and by standing firm against US-led Western sanctions over Russian actions in Ukraine, among other things.
Notwithstanding Japan’s participation in the anti-Russian sanctions, the Russians Generally View Japan neither as friendly nor as unfriendly. In contrast, Russians generally view the United States and its European allies to be very unfriendly or even threatening toward Russia. And with Russia’s relations with the West deteriorating Putin is pursuing a ‘pivot to Asia’.
Pragmatism is evident in Russia’s international behaviour. In Syria and Ukraine, for example, Moscow has shown a willingness and capacity to curb its military actions in ways and at times that are suitable to its own national interests. It is reasonable to assume that Putin’s Russia will exercise both its hard power and soft power. This entails a stronger military presence in East Asia, including air and naval manoeuvres around Japan and base reinforcement on the southern Kuril Islands, and an increased willingness to continue dialogue with Tokyo towards a peace treaty.
Any lingering World War II antipathy in Russia is also directed at Nazi Germany, not at Japan. Putin mentioned Japan only once during his speech at the 2015 Moscow Victory Parade and he did not discuss Japan at all in his remarks in Beijing commemorating the 70th anniversary of the war’s end.
On the Japanese side, Abe has made it clear that he is committed to resolving the territorial dispute and concluding a peace treaty with Russia. He has met with Putin on numerous occasions, becoming the first Japanese Prime minister to do so in a decade in 2013 and defying US President Barack Obama’s request in meeting with Putin in Sochi in May 2016. Abe’s demonstration of independence from Washington was appreciated by Moscow. And despite questions over the success of his ‘Abenomics’ economic plan and continuing opposition among the Japanese public toward Abe’s revised interpretation of the ‘peace constitution’ the Japanese Prime Minister enjoys a level of public support not experienced by many of his predecessors. Abe’s leadership has been boosted further by the overwhelming victory of his party, and its junior coalition partner Komeito, in the upper house elections on 10 July.
Abe’s conservative base would not be happy with a territorial compromise with Russia that did not return the entire Northern Territories to Japan, but such a solution would be seen as one of the most important and historic achievements of their leader.
For any such compromise to work economic ties between the two countries need to be substantially expanded and deepened. And social contacts between the Russians and the Japanese must also be expanded. There are currently only modest numbers of Russians living in and visiting Japan, and the number of Japanese residents and visitors in Russia is even smaller. Only through significantly expanded relations will Russia and Japan cease to see each other as ‘distant neighbours’ and view each other as ‘future partners’.
Tsuneo Akaha is Professor of International Policy Studies and Anna Vassilieva is Professor of Russian Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.