On September 21, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida traveled to Russia for bilateral talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. This was the first visit by a Japanese foreign minister to Russia since Shinzo Abe took over as Japanese prime minister in December 2012. Relations between Tokyo and Moscow, frostier in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, are one of the key components of the world’s major power dynamics. This meeting has come at a crucial time, when Tokyo and Moscow can either compromise and work through issues plaguing their bilateral relationship, or can once again watch any attempts of reconciliation fall apart.
The Ukraine crisis effectively ended the rapprochement between the Japan and Russia. Wanting to stay in line with other members of the Group of Seven industrialized nations, Tokyo was left with little choice but to impose sanctions on Russia. Despite many of these sanctions being cosmetic in nature, Russia viewed this move as Tokyo’s inability to take foreign policy decisions independent of its closest ally, the U.S. Since then, Moscow and Tokyo have struggled to see eye to eye on a number of issues.
The territorial dispute over the Russian administered Southern Kurils, which the Japanese claim as the Northern Territories, has been the main obstacle to the two nations signing a peace treaty to formally end the Second World War. Claims over these four disputed islands – Iturup (known in Japanese as Etorofu), Kunashir (Kunashiri), Shikotan, and the rocky Habomai islets – have been muddied by a series of historical treaties such as the Portsmouth Treaty of 1905, the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, and the San Francisco Peace treaty of 1951.
Thus, technically still at war, Tokyo and Moscow have tried on numerous occasions to reach an agreement on this issue, always without success. Japan has on numerous occasions rejected a Russian offer to settle the dispute with the return of two out of the four islands, namely the Habomai islets and Shikotan, since these islands comprise only 7 percent of the total land mass in dispute. The closest either country has come to settling this dispute was in 1997. At that time, Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto shared a good rapport, and Tokyo hoped to settle the dispute with the “Kawana” proposal. However, later that fall, Moscow rejected the proposal, and the issue has remained a thorn in the side of bilateral relations ever since.
With Abe and Russian President Vladmir Putin in power, now would seem the right time to once again push for a resolution of this long-standing dispute. Both nationalist leaders, Abe and Putin have a strong hold over their respective nations, share a good rapport, and see space for their countries to work together for mutual benefit. Putin’s popularity stands at around 87 percent, and the Russian president is due to remain in power until 2018. Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) currently holds a huge majority in the Lower House, and does not have to face voters again until 2016, when the Upper House elections are due.
In March 2013, peace talks between Japan and Russia began, renewing hopes for a fresh start to the relationship. In April 2013, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Russia in ten years, and he and Putin have met on five separate occasions. The two leaders agreed to revive talks on a peace treaty, and even set up a new dialogue mechanism with the 2+2 meetings between their foreign and defense ministers; an arrangement that Japan shares only with the U.S., Australia and India.
This outreach was prompted by the converging strategies and interests of Russia and Japan on key issues in this geographic region. Although Tokyo is growing increasingly concerned about military provocations from Moscow directed at Japan, both nations stand to gain much in terms of bilateral economic and strategic cooperation. For one, the disaster of 2011 left Japan’s energy policy in a state of disarray. Despite the Japanese government’s recent decision to once again restart the nuclear reactors, Tokyo is looking for alternatives and views Russia as a potential supplier of hydrocarbons. Russia, in turn, suffering from Western sanctions, is looking to diversify its energy interests in Asia, and Japan has the potential to be a major customer. The Sakhlin Islands, near the disputed Northern Territories/Southern Kurils, have large amounts of hydrocarbons that have already attracted Japanese investment.
Despite this incentive, incidents in the last couple of months have once again upset relations between Moscow and Tokyo. Kishida was initially scheduled to make the trip towards the end of August, but it was postponed to protest a visit by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to the disputed territories. Further aggravating Japan, Moscow also recently released statements regarding its plans to invest in military and civilian infrastructure projects on the disputed islands, which are now home to approximately 30,000 Russian citizens.
In this scenario, it is important for Japan to maintain consistency with respect to sovereignty questions, as its stance could also potentially influence and jeopardize other issues like the ongoing row with China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, and those with South Korea over the Dokdo/Takeshima islands in the Sea of Japan. On the other hand, for the Kremlin, it is essential to appear strong, particularly given the Ukraine crisis. With the sanctions beginning to hurt its economy, holding onto the islands is important for Russia. Moscow holds the position that it will not negotiate the territorial issue with Tokyo while the sanctions are in place.
Thus, resolving the dispute over the islands entails economic, political, and strategic questions. But a qualitative improvement in relations between Russia and Japan in these areas requires that the island problem be resolved. In this regard, Kishida’s visit underscores the importance that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has placed on “continuing dialogue” with Russia. In that respect, the decision to resume talks on October 8 between Deputy Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama and his Russian counterpart Igor Morgulov could be an important step forward. Japan and Russia have also committed to a Tokyo visit by Putin, and Abe may also hold talks with Putin on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Alongside this, during Kishida’s visit, Japan and Russia held a meeting of their intergovernmental committee on trade and economic issues in a bid to improve the business and investment environment in Russia for Japanese companies. Deepening economic relations could encourage the two countries to solve their territorial dispute.
With a number of upcoming talks and meetings scheduled, Tokyo and Moscow must work to create a mutually acceptable solution to the territorial issue. Not only will this enable them to realize the full potential of their bilateral relationship, but a peaceful resolution of the territorial dispute would offer a model for the resolution of other territorial disputes that plague the region.
Vindu Mai Chotani is a Research Assistant at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.