Russia and Japan: Wrong Premise, Unrealistic Expectations

Main Image Credit The Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan Islands, and the Habomai islet group, which Russia seized in 1945 and Japan still claims. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Japan is putting too much faith in its ability to woo Russia. Tokyo will be disappointed, since its strategy is both erratically pursued, and fundamentally unrealistic.

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 not signed a peace treaty because of a simmering dispute over four islands – the Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan Islands, and the Habomai islet group – which Russia seized in 1945 and Japan still claims. However, none of this has dampened Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s enthusiasm for forging a new partnership with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir is scheduled to visit Japan in December. And if current Russian media sources are to be believed, the two countries are negotiating a territorial deal, under which Russia will return two of the disputed islands to Japanese sovereignty. Is the man who was only recently hailed as a hero in his own country for seizing Crimea from Ukraine, the macho leader who rides the steppes of Russia bare-chested, about to surprise the world by giving away a bit of territory which belongs to Mother Russia?

Not in the slightest; Japan is likely to be disappointed yet again by a Russian technique of stalling, and a promise of a compromise which will never happen.

Abe has courted Russia for years, and for perfectly good reasons. One is purely practical: the Japanese are interested in becoming a major player in the Russian commercial 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 Putin. However, today, as Russia lacks the extensive capital required to exploit fields in inhospitable environments, such a partnership makes sense for both sides. 

For Abe, however, the biggest potential advantage is strategic. A close link with Russia offers Japan further leverage against China and increases Japan’s diplomatic room for manoeuvre in Asia.  Japanese security planners are aware that Tokyo’s current military deployments, which concentrate large numbers of ground troops and tanks in the northern parts of Japan facing Russia, also favour a thaw in relations. The deployment is a relic of the Cold War and a waste of resources; Tokyo would rather concentrate resources on the confrontation which really matters to Japan today: that with China.

Over the past few years, however, events have conspired against a thaw. Oil prices collapsed, making collaborative energy projects uneconomical. Moscow’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. Indeed, China and Russia recently staged a maritime drill in the South China Sea, proof that the two countries’ military links can get stronger.

None of these obstacles have disappeared. Abe has failed to persuade his counterparts in the G7 to lift economic sanctions on Russia. So at least for the moment, Japan remains tied to an anti-Russian stance that it does not like. 

Still, Russia is now also keen to improve relations with Tokyo. Soon after the release of Japan’s defence White Paper in July, the Moscow-based state-funded Sputnik news agency ran a commentary praising Japan’s ‘conciliatory’ approach, and quoted an expert from Moscow’s influential National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Kristina Voda, who pointedly refuted Chinese claims that Japan is engaged in confrontation: ‘The white paper is not a unilateral reference to threats from China, but an attempt to encourage China to engage in dialogue’.

Officials in Moscow have also revived plans for a Russia–Japan ‘power bridge’ project, which involves renovating existing power plants on Russia’s Sakhalin Island, and laying an underwater power cable across the La Pérouse Strait that separates the island from Japan’s Hokkaido island. Russian Economic Development Minister Alexei Ulyukayev’s July visit to Tokyo brought more ideas for cooperation. ‘The two counties need to take advantage of this window of opportunity’, said former Russian Ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov in an interview for the Japanese media. And now, of course, comes the suggestions of a possible territorial deal, the ultimate sweetener for the Japanese.

A legal and diplomatic framework for a territorial solution exists. The Southern Kuril Islands – which the Japanese call the Northern Territories – were coveted largely due to their strategic significance: they blocked the Russian fleet’s access to the Pacific. At various times, Russia touted the idea of handing back some of the islands, in return for a permanent settlement of the dispute. However, Japan held out for the return of all the territories, causing deadlock.

In 1956, Japan and the then Soviet Union issued a joint declaration normalising bilateral diplomatic ties. In that declaration, Moscow promised to return Shikotan and the Habomai islet group after the signing of a peace treaty. At the height of Cold War tensions, Moscow annulled the joint declaration and insisted until the end of the Cold War that no territorial issue existed. 

But after the demise of the Soviet Union, the then Russian President Boris Yeltsin visited Tokyo in October 1993 and issued the Tokyo Declaration with Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa. It called for conclusion of a peace treaty after resolving the dispute based on ‘law and justice’ and past documents agreed upon between Tokyo and Moscow. So, if Putin wants to settle this territorial dispute, he has plenty of documents to go by.

But does he? It is virtually inconceivable that a man who compares himself to Catherine the Great will hand over some islands to Japan. If Putin intended to do so, he would have prepared Russian public opinion in advance. So, notwithstanding the friendly noises towards Japan, there is no indication of any Russian readiness to discuss territorial questions. The Russians are happy to let Japan speculate on the topic, but the chances of any substantial deal are zero.

More profoundly, Japan’s assumption that Russia’s friendship can be harnessed in containing a rising China is misconceived. Russia has its own fears about China. But the Russians have calculated – probably correctly – that they have little to gain by aligning themselves with any anti-Chinese coalition in Asia.

So Moscow’s best bet is to play one Asian country against another. That is why the Russians are happy to conduct military exercises with the Chinese in the South China Sea, but also happy to supply Vietnam with submarines which are intended to challenge China’s dominance in these waters, or why the Russians are supplying weapons to China, but also delivering the same systems and platforms to India. While a thaw in Russia’s relations with Japan is advisable, as far as Moscow is concerned, it does not commit Putin to do anything about China.

In essence, therefore, the Japanese are not only investing too much in the effort to woo Russia, they also have unrealistic expectations about what they can achieve.


Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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