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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.