The Thorn in Japan-Russia Ties
Image Credit: Russian Presidential Press and Information Office

The Thorn in Japan-Russia Ties


J. Berkshire Miller offers a number of good reasons why Russia and Japan would benefit from setting aside their territorial dispute and concentrating on developing their joint security and economic interests. Unfortunately, no recent development looks sufficiently strong to break the logjam that has blocked progress on this issue for decades.

The core territorial dispute concerns what the Japanese call their Northern Territories and what the Russians term the Southern Kurils. Russian and Japanese historians can cite competing evidence to support their legal claims, but this is irrelevant since the issue can’t be settled by historical or legal reasoning since the problem has long been one of competing contemporary national interests aggravated by national prestige, diverging priorities, and nationalist public opinion that makes it hard for elected politicians to compromise.

As a result, the territorial tensions between Russia and Japan prevent these two countries from aligning together to advance their common security and economic interests. Excluding their territorial dispute, Russia and Japan share several overlapping geopolitical and economic interests that should make them natural partners if not allies.

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In East Asia, Russia and Japan confront similar challenges of China’s growing economic and military power as well as North Korea’s nuclear testing and missile launches. Better ties between Moscow and Tokyo might prove to be the catalyst for a long-anticipated geopolitical realignment that sees them adopt a more guarded approach to China’s rise by strengthening their bilateral ties. This repositioning would allow them to concentrate their efforts on matching China’s growing economic and military power. It might also induce the Chinese to moderate their policies towards Russia, Japan and other countries.

Russia and Japan are certainly striving to become more influential players in the Korean issue. For example, the two Koreas, China, and the United States all expect that any Korean peace treaty would be signed by these four countries alone, excluding Russia and Japan from even the negotiations of any treaty.

In the economic realm, meanwhile, Japan and Russia are also finding themselves marginalized from the newly dynamic economies of ASEAN. China and the United States are leading the external competition for their influence by, among other means, offering Association of Southeast Asian countries diverging models for free trade agreements, with diverging principles and memberships.

In addition, the Japanese would like to expand their access to Russia’s natural resources, especially oil and natural gas, while the Russians would like to secure more Japanese investment to modernize their energy and other industries and to develop the Russian Far East. This Russian region’s lagging development and alienation from Moscow represents a long-term security challenge in the face of China’s growing population and economic-military potential.

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