Japan–Russia: Another Fine Mess

Main Image Credit Vladimir Putin meets Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Danang, Vietnam, last week. Courtesy of the Office of the President of Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin imposes new conditions to normalise Moscow’s relations with Tokyo.

A meeting last week between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Danang, Vietnam, where both attended a pan-Asian summit, went swimmingly. Sources said both sides agreed to accelerate talks to draw up specific joint economic projects.

However, behind this official bonhomie, the reality is that far from drawing closer together, Russia and Japan are growing further apart. For, surreptitiously, Putin has piled additional pressure on Tokyo by raising the question of Japan’s alliance with the US.

Relations between Russia and Japan have always been rocky; more than seven decades after the end of the Second World War, Tokyo and Moscow have yet to sign a peace treaty because of a simmering dispute over four islands seized by Russia in 1945 that Japan still claims as part of its territory. However, none of this has dampened Abe’s enthusiasm for a new partnership with Russia.

Abe has invested a great deal in improving links with Russia, partly for practical reasons: the Japanese are interested in becoming a major player in the Russian market and in gaining a major stake in Russia’s Siberian oil and natural gas fields, all close to Japanese waters.

A decade ago, Japanese companies were evicted from these energy projects by the Russian government. However, today, as Russia lacks capital and the deep-sea drilling technology often required to exploit fields in inhospitable environments, a partnership with Japan makes perfect sense for both sides.

For Abe, the biggest potential advantage is strategic: a close link with Russia offers Japan a further lever against China and increases Tokyo’s diplomatic wiggle room in Asia

Many of these projects were not deemed profitable over the past few years, as oil prices slumped. But with energy prices now perking up, Siberian oil and gas is a more enticing proposition.

For Abe, however, the biggest potential advantage is strategic: a close link with Russia offers Japan a further lever against China and increases Tokyo’s diplomatic wiggle room in Asia.  

A thaw in relations with Moscow is also supported by Japanese security planners. They are aware that Tokyo’s current military deployments, with large numbers of ground troops and tanks in the northern parts of Japan facing Russia, are a relic of the Cold War and a waste of resources in the confrontation which really matters to Japan today: that with China.

Sadly, events have conspired against a Russian–Japanese thaw. Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine forced Japan to join the Western-led sanctions against Russia. Moscow’s growing international isolation pushed Russia into a closer alliance with China, precisely what Abe sought to avoid. And Russia’s nationalist agenda precluded any compromises over disputed territories.

Still, ever the optimist, Abe persisted in his efforts to woo the Russians. Officials in Tokyo failed to persuade his counterparts in the G7 to lift economic sanctions on Russia, but all the messages they convey to Moscow are those of further trade and friendship.

And the Russians occasionally reciprocate with offers of cross-border cooperation. So, when Shinzo and Vlad met in Vietnam last Friday, expectations were high that the meeting would produce some concrete results.

It did, but not in the way Abe envisaged. For although Putin acknowledged the need for a peace treaty between the two nations, he also introduced a surprising new condition:

I want to say that here there are lots of questions regarding the peace treaty ... It’s not a secret that we also need to look at what commitments Japan has towards its partners in the areas of defence and security, and how that will influence the progress of the negotiating process on the peace treaty between Russia and Japan.

Putin added that Moscow needed to examine ‘what commitments Japan has and what she can do, and cannot do, independently. It’s entirely natural, if there are some commitments, that they obviously have to be observed, and how does that impact our relations with Japan? We all have to understand that it’s a lot of work, and maybe it is indeed not a question of just one year’.

Perhaps Putin simply does not want a peace treaty, which will have to address the thorny territorial issue, so he is inventing excuses to kick the talks into the long grass

The implications of this new Russian stance are both clear and grave for Japan. First, it is obvious that Moscow is in no hurry to patch up its relationship with Japan; it probably reckons that it could offer Japanese companies concessions and that these firms will rush into the Russian markets regardless of whether there is any peace treaty.

Furthermore, Putin may be calculating that the Japan needs Russia more than vice versa; otherwise, it would have been illogical to adopt the new stance, which further complicates an already complicated situation.

So why has Putin introduced the extraordinary and unprecedented demand that Japan should re-examine its alliance with the US before it can conclude a peace treaty with Russia?

One explanation could be that Putin simply does not want a peace treaty, which will have to address the thorny territorial issue, so he is inventing excuses to kick the talks into the long grass.

Another explanation may be that he is hoping to achieve a deal under which the Japanese agree to withdraw their troops facing the Russian coastline, by creating a de facto demilitarised area. But the most likely explanation is that he is hoping to reassure China that no Abe–Putin ‘bromance’ is likely, without a prior examination of Japan’s military stance in the region.

Either way, the implications for Japan and for Abe are grim.

Perhaps this latest mishap may persuade Abe to conclude that the best way of dealing with Russia is by not dealing with Russia, by not showing such eagerness. But don’t bet on Abe reaching such a conclusion.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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