Getting Serious: An End to the Russia-Japan Dispute?

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Getting Serious: An End to the Russia-Japan Dispute?

It’s not the first time a resolution to the disputed islands has been touted, but conditions now may encourage compromise.

As Japan remains mired in seemingly intractable territorial rows with China and South Korea, there seems to be a window of opportunity on its dispute with Russia over the Northern territories (referred to as the Southern Kurile Islands in Russia). On August 19, Japan and Russia will formally commence high-level negotiations on resolving the dispute, which has thus far precluded both sides from formally signing a peace treaty to end hostilities from World War II. This follows up on a pledge by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, during his historic state visit to Russia this past February, that he is committed to working with Russian President Vladimir Putin to finally reach a mutually acceptable conclusion to the issue.

The meeting later this month in Moscow will bring together Japan’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, Shinsuke Sugiyama and his Russian counterpart Igor Morgulov. While the agenda will also focus on positive engagement, such as bolstering energy ties. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, hinted earlier this month that early discussions on a peace treaty were “possible.” While the language is non-committal, the policy tilt from Tokyo over the past six months has been significant.

For the past decade, Japan-Russia relations withered as politicians in both countries tried to assuage nationalist sentiment and engage in politicking. Indeed, it was less than three years ago that former President Dmitri Medvedev became the first leader of Russia or the former Soviet Union to step foot on the disputed isles, prompting then-Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan to call the actions an “unforgiveable outrage.” And a Russia-Japan détente has not been made easier by Moscow’s recent embrace of Beijing – even though the nature of such engagement is opaque and likely benign in the short term.      

The one difference this time around is Tokyo’s determination to get a deal done and normalize relations with Russia. Abe’s summit in Russia last winter should not be viewed as mere window-dressing. In fact, the visit marked the first time a Japanese leader had made an official state visit to Russia since former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Putin met for three days in 2003. Abe has motivation to get a deal done with Russia and his government has been sending feelers out on a compromise deal. Shotaro Yachi, one of Abe’s personal confidants and a special advisor to the Cabinet, recently teased out the idea broached by Putin last year of hikiwake – or a “comprise” on the territorial row. Yachi noted in an interview before the recent Upper House elections that, “Japan needs to go into the negotiations with a strong determination to settle this issue once and for all while Putin remains president. If Putin broaches the idea of a hikiwake, we shouldn’t reject the idea outright. We should explore the possibilities of a hikiwake in a form that would be acceptable to Japan.”

This is a considerable shift in thinking for Japan and Yachi indicated that there needs to be recognition that a deal may result in political blowback: “No solution is going to win unanimous popular support in either Japan or Russia. An acceptable compromise would be one that a majority in both countries can support. But that will entail a larger agreement embracing cooperation in areas like energy and the environment. Hopefully, people will see it as a win for both sides once all of those elements are taken into account. The key is putting together an agreement that doesn’t give one side a clear victory over the other.”

In fact, Abe’s drive for a compromise with Putin was initiated from the first days after his election last year and was actualized with his dispatch of special envoy and former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori to Moscow this past February. Mori, who maintains a close personal relationship with Putin, made waves in Japan by going on national television before his visit and floating the necessity for a compromise on the territorial dispute, stressing that this was the only  “realistic approach” to resolving the spat.

Critics will point out that Japan-Russia ties have ebbed and flowed since 1945 and note that this is not the first time both sides have neared a resolution. But times are rapidly changing, not only in Tokyo and Moscow, but also in Northeast Asia with uncertain bilateral relationships across the board. Putin is trying out his own pivot to the Asia-Pacific while Abe is trying to tread water diplomatically as he is challenged vigorously in the East China Sea by Beijing.

Both sides see an imperative to make nice for energy reasons too. Japan and Russia are still struggling to fulfill the lofty expectations of the 2003 Japan-Russia Action Plan – signed by Putin and former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi – which calls for joint energy development on the Russian island of Sakhalin. Last November, the Asahi Shimbun reported that a consortium of four Japanese gas companies had agreed to plans to construct a 1400 km pipeline that would import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Sakhalin. Japan and Russia also have annual energy consultations at the working level. The strategic triangle between Japan, Russia and China is also an important consideration regarding energy security. Both Japan and China are net energy importers, while Russia is one of the world’s largest energy exporters. Tokyo’s energy needs have been magnified since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 and the subsequent public distrust of nuclear power as an acceptable source of energy.

While all of this appears to give leverage to Russia in energy negotiations with Japan, the opposite may be true. Russia continues to face hard-nosed negotiators in Beijing and this has trimmed Moscow’s hopes for a lucrative gas deal with China. As a result, Putin has been aggressively approaching other suitors in Asia such as South Korea and Japan in order to widen Russia’s energy net. Essentially, Moscow is desperately looking to strengthen its supplier hand in order to gain leverage itself in gas negotiations with China. Having a serious energy relationship with Japan not only provides Russia with this competitive advantage, it also adds more revenue to Moscow’s coffers.

Despite Russia’s intentions, Abe can leverage energy negotiations with Putin to secure cheaper prices and apply stronger pressure on the Northern Territories. Indeed, the reason for Russia’s placing urgency on solid relations with Japan can largely be attributed to energy politics. Russia is acutely concerned about the “shale gas revolution” in North America as well as the potential for untapped shale in China. Both of these developments have the potential to limit Moscow’s bargaining power. Shoichi Ito recently summed this point up in a commentary for the Brookings Institution, “The U.S. shale gas revolution came as a harsh blow to Moscow, given that Russia is frustrated by the gradual decreases of its natural gas exports to Europe as consumption there declines and the EU seeks diversification of natural gas supply routes.”

But energy symbiosis is not the only link for Japan and Russia, who also work together on a number of international security domains, including Tokyo’s support for disarming old Soviet nuclear submarines in the Far East. The two sides also continue to cooperate as the two players “outside the tent” on the stalled Six Party Talks with North Korea and have been working side by side on curbing international drug flows in Central Asia. For all these reasons, it will be important for both sides to approach next week’s meetings with a renewed sense of urgency as well as the requisite political will needed to reach a hikiwake on the territorial dispute.