Vitalizing Russia-Japan relations
By Dr. Abdul Ruff
A top nuclear power with a veto on the UNSC, Russia enjoys, almost at par with US super power, certain privileges and international prestige that Japan, a non nuclear and non veto power, does not. USA looks after Japan’s interests in the UNSC.
A close NATO ally of USA, Japan is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, and its veto ambition in the UNSC is a very important topic for the country. However, since there are other more important veto claimants like Saudi Arabia and Turkey Americans hesitate to undertake steps to make Japan a veto member. Moreover, Strategic experts view Japan’s veto status would even be detrimental to US global interests.
Russo-Japanese relations have been strained for decades manly due to four islands that the mighty Soviet Union had annexed from Japan in the WW-II. The four Kuril Islands — Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai — have been administered by Russia since the end of World War II, but Japan still lays claim to them.
Ties between the two countries deteriorated two years ago after Tokyo announced that it would support Western economic sanctions imposed on Moscow over its alleged interference in Ukraine, but the lack of stable relations actually goes back decades.
Commenting on the background to the diplomatic good will visit in analysis Russian geopolitical analysts noted that at first glance, Russian Japanese relations are exceptional in their astonishing irrationality.
Relations between Russia and Japan are not on the positive side and they are a continuation of tensed Empire of Japan–Russian Empire relations, covering 1855-1917 and equally tensed Japan–Soviet Union relations covering 1917-1991. The two countries have been unable to sign a peace treaty after World War II due to the Kuril Islands dispute.
It appears Russia seeks to upgrade its relationship with Japan and on April 15, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Tokyo for a two-day official visit, discussing political and economic issues. Lavrov invited Prime Minister Abe to visit Russia.
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe left on May 01 for a weeklong visit to major European countries and Russia to lay the groundwork for the Group of Seven summit he will host this month and to address a decades-old territorial row with Moscow. Abe conferred with European leaders on how to support the world economy amid China’s economic slowdown. He visits Italy, France, Belgium, Germany and Britain before traveling on to Russia. He also plans to discuss counterterrorism measures and appeal to European members of the G-7 to emphatically denounce North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches at the summit.
On his way back from Europe, Abe is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin for talks in the southern city of Sochi on issues including the long-standing dispute over four Russian-held islets off Hokkaido. “I hope to resolve the issue by patiently negotiating based on a policy of resolving the issue of the ownership of the islands and concluding a peace treaty,” Abe said at the airport. The government hopes Abe’s meeting with Putin in Sochi will pave the way for the Russian president to visit Japan, something once tentatively planned for 2014 but postponed due to tensions over Ukraine.
The specific character of the Japanese-US alliance shows that Tokyo, as a part of NATO, is occasionally forced to subordinate its interests to those of the Americans. For example, because of US pressure, the Japanese were forced to join in on the West’s anti-Russian sanctions, and cancel a number of high-level meetings between officials.
This, of course, is something Lavrov reminded his partners about in Tokyo.” “In order to find compromise, it is necessary to maintain a continuous, uninterrupted dialogue. But Japan made the decision to limit contacts with us at a certain point. In my opinion, this does not meet the interests of the Japanese government or the Japanese people,” Lavrov emphasized. At the same time, the minister noted that “despite pressure from its partners, and particularly the United States, our Japanese friends are nevertheless committed to maintaining these relationships.”
Moscow hopes that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s forthcoming visit to Russia will give impulse to the entire complex of Russian-Japanese relations. “We understand that contacts during this visit will allow for additional impulse in advancing the entire complex of our relations in line with the joint statement of the two leaders in 2012 and the following agreements,” Lavrov said during a joint press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in Tokyo.
Next round of Russian-Japanese peace treaty talks will be held shortly after the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Russia.
Russia’s top diplomat Lavrov said in a positive tone that Russia-Japan peace treaty issue cannot be reduced to “territorial claims” at the very least because the only document that was signed and ratified by both sides — the joint declaration of 1956 — states that the sides have agreed to renounce all claims against each other, and the next task is to sign a peace treaty,” Lavrov said in an interview with Chinese, Japanese and Mongolian media.
Lavrov said Prime Minister Abe expressed interest in visiting Russia. As for a possible visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov stated that there are “absolutely no obstacles.” “In order for the visit to take place, we need for the invitation… to take the form of a specific date,” he added.
Lavrov also said USA does not like any credible improvement in Russo-Japanese relations and that disapproving statements coming from Washington regarding high-level contacts between Russia and Japan are simply outrageous. “I think our Japanese colleagues understand this and assess it in a way such unacceptable manners should be assessed.”
The United States’ exerting pressure on Japan undermines Russian-Japanese bilateral relations. US pressure on Japan leads to narrowing of dialogue between Moscow and Tokyo, Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said responding to a request to comment on the Japanese media reports that US President Barack Obama called Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, asking him not to come to Russia. Japan narrowed Russian contacts and curtailed the work in bilateral direction, under the pressure and insistent recommendations of the United States.
Japan’s officials have been recommended not to pay or exchange visits to or with Russia in a rather harsh manner before. However, the official Washington spokesman has recently said that if one contact with Russian officials takes place, then it’s alright, thus giving the go-ahead.
Lavrov said that overall the upcoming Russian-Japanese summit agenda looks very dense both in terms of bilateral and international issues. “We would like to see Russia and Japan move from just exchanging opinions to coordinating approaches to urgent international issues”
Experts and diplomats acknowledge that they have been preparing this series of visits for several months. The main obstacle had been for Abe and Putin to voice at least a framework for a compromise. And given that the visits have been discussed, this seems to indicate that a formula for a compromise framework has finally been determined.
Nearly 71 years after the conclusion of the Second World War, Russia and Japan still have no peace treaty between them. However, they never fought a war since WW II. The dispute over the Russian-held islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, has prevented the two countries from peace treaty to officially end World War II.
Ties between two countries deteriorated after Tokyo announced support for certain Western economic sanctions against Russia imposed in 2014 over Moscow’s alleged interference in the eastern Ukrainian conflict. Russia has resolutely denied the accusations. The dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands deteriorated Russo-Japan relations when the Japanese government published a new guideline for school textbooks on July 16, 2008 to teach Japanese children that their country has sovereignty over the Kuril Islands. The Russian public was generally outraged by the action and demanded the government to counteract. The Foreign Minister of Russia announced on July 18, 2008 “these actions contribute neither to the development of positive cooperation between the two countries, nor to the settlement of the dispute,” and reaffirmed its sovereignty over the islands.
And the territorial issue is the key stumbling block. The two sides cannot agree on the territorial issue. The Japanese demand all four islands and will not agree to any compromise solution. Both countries discussed the issue for years but could not reach a credible solution. The two sides agreed to seek a resolution over the persistent Kuril Islands dispute, but the decision of the dispute is not expected in the near future. Despite the territorial dispute, Hata offered some financial support to Russian market-oriented economic reforms. In March 1994, then Japanese minister of foreign affairs Hata Tsutomu visited Moscow and met with Russian minister of foreign affairs Andrei Kozyrev and other senior officials.
Upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union, as the first Russian President Boris Yeltsin took power in Russia in late 1991. Moscow took a stand in opposition to relinquishing the disputed territories to Japan. Although Japan joined with the Group of Seven industrialized nations in contributing some technical and financial assistance to Russia, relations between Tokyo and Moscow remained poor. Russian president Boris Yeltsin postponed a scheduled September 1992 visit to Japan to October 11, 1993. He made concessions on the Kuril Islands dispute over the four Kuril Islands (northeast of Hokkaido), a considerable obstacle to Japanese-Russian relations, but did agree to abide by the 1956 Soviet pledge to return two areas (Shikotan and the Habomai Islands) to Japan. Yeltsin apologized repeatedly for Soviet mistreatment of Japanese prisoners of war after World War II.
In 2010, President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev became the first Russian president to take a state trip to the Kuril Islands. Medvedev shortly ordered significant reinforcements to the Russian defenses on the Kuril Islands. Medvedev was replaced by Vladimir Putin in 2012. In November 2013, Japan held its first ever diplomatic talks with the Russian Federation, and the first with Moscow since 1973. Further talks are expected in 2014, with a formal peace treaty on the table as both sides seem willing to compromise
As of 2016 matters remain unresolved, and these disputes have effectively soured relations between the two countries. Since governments are not maintain good relations, peole in both countries do not have a positive view of each other. According to a 2012 Pew Global Attitudes Project survey, 72% of Japanese people view Russia unfavorably, compared with 22% who viewed it favorably, making Japan the country with the most anti-Russian sentiment.
The Kremlin considers all for islands as strategic territories. As Japan demands all the four islands, Russia’s leadership was willing, in 2004, to make a compromise along the lines of the 1956 proposal – to transfer two islands and sign the peace treaty after that. Moscow said two of the four islands is the compromise. Japan has held and continues to hold a different position: for them these two islands are just the start of negotiations in which a compromise can be found, which should include at least a third island.” Moreover, Tokyo has also suggested another option: that Russia gives up two islands now, launching strong bilateral relations and two more at a later point.
In fact Japan wants all four islands from Russia.
In any case, now Russia is not planning on giving anything up, as the Foreign Ministry’s statement shortly before Lavrov’s departure made perfectly clear. The statement clearly said that progress on any peace treaty would remain impossible without Japan’s recognition of post-war realities.
And Russia’s stubbornness can be explained not only by the fact that Moscow does not want to throw away its strategic territories, and not just because Japan needs the peace treaty and an improvement in relations more than Russia does but also because the Kremlin is not convinced in the reliability of any agreements with Japan.
New effort for Mutual benefits
The status of disputed islands and unstable bilateral relations continues to disturb any normal relations but the NATO of which Japan is an important financing member did not let the relations to take any positive plunge. However, Moscow says it wants to stabilize ties with Japan. Sergei Lavrov’s Tokyo visit was meant essentially to hold a comprehensive discussion on bilateral and international issues. His visit to Japan comes partly in preparations for Abe’s possible arrival in Russia to discuss the territorial issue. The visit aimed at laying the groundwork for improved relations between Moscow and Tokyo, and to iron out details on a future visit to Russia by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Russian business magazine experts mull the prospects for Russian-Japanese relations.
There are other options for solving the territorial dispute that do not involve Russia giving up its sovereignty over the Kuriles. This, for example, may include the creation of a special economic zone with preferences for Japanese investment. Such a scenario would bring a number of benefits for both Japan with Prime Minister Abe being able to say that he has returned partial control over the islands, and for Russia, since Japanese investments would help the islands’ economy. It appears this will be one of the topics to be discussed by Abe during his visit to Russia,” which could be held as soon as next month.
The Japanese prime minister is set on resolving the territorial issue and has said so more than once and is ready to discuss the various options personally with Vladimir Putin. These discussions would continue, most likely in Tokyo, where the Russian president would arrive with a return visit, a prospect which requires only the setting of a specific date, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.
It would seem that both countries would benefit from almost a strategic partnership level of relations. Russia can offer Japan the energy it requires, as well as resources and a market for the expansion of Japanese capital. But more importantly, the Kremlin could become a geopolitical balance, helping Tokyo to find a formula to defend against an ever-strengthening China. After all, Russia is one of the few countries in the region that does not hold animosity for Tokyo over Japan’s war crimes in the first half of the 20th century.
In turn, Japan can provide Russia with technology, industrial goods, investment and innovations, and actively participate in the development of the Russian Far East.
The Kremlin, for its part, is ready to sign such a treaty immediately, and then begin to build a strategic partnership. Without effective cooperation with Japan, there can be no complete ‘eastern pivot’ in Russian foreign policy, but only a ‘Chinese tilt’.
However, Tokyo has one condition: the Japanese want the South Kuril Islands, which the USSR took from Japan after the Second World War. The problem of the peace treaty is directly linked to the issue of the northern territories, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said ahead of Lavrov’s visit, referring to the Kuriles.