On May 6, 2016, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe traveled to Russia to meet with President Vladimir Putin in Sochi. This was a bold move by the Japanese leader, as it was seen as breaking ranks with the G7’s policy of isolating Russia in response to the 2014 annexation of Crimea. U.S. President Barack Obama is even reported to have phoned Abe to dissuade him from making the visit.
The Japanese leader’s willingness to ignore the advice of his country’s chief ally is an indication of the great importance Abe attributes to relations with Russia. This has been evident ever since his return to power in December 2012 and is explained by two factors. The first is the Abe administration’s judgement that closer relations with Russia are significant as a means of counterbalancing Chinese power in the region. This goal is reflected in Japan’s 2016 Diplomatic Bluebook where it is stated that the development of ties with Russia “contributes to Japanese interests and to regional peace and prosperity.” Secondly, Abe has made a personal commitment to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia over the Northern Territories (known as the Southern Kurils in Russian) before the end of his time in office. This dispute, which relates to four islands off the northeast coast of Hokkaidō, entered its 71st year in 2016 and has been the main obstacle preventing Japan and Russia from signing a peace treaty.
In Sochi, Abe met with Putin for over three hours, including half an hour when the two leaders spoke privately. Following the meeting’s conclusion, Abe gave an exceptionally positive assessment of the discussions, trumpeting agreement on a “new approach” to bilateral relations. He also proclaimed that “I have a sense that we are moving toward a breakthrough in the stalled peace treaty negotiations.”
Abe’s post-summit comments therefore suggest that the Sochi meeting marked a major turning point in Japan-Russia relations. However, what specifically is meant by the “new approach”? Moreover, now that several weeks have passed since the Sochi meeting, what progress has been made towards fulfilling this agenda?
On the first question, there is a lack of clarity about what precisely is meant by the “new approach.” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga explained that it is “a new approach that is not stuck in a traditional way of thinking” and is instead “a future-oriented standpoint.” This seems to suggest that Japan is de-emphasizing its historical claims and is moving toward a more flexible stance on the territorial issue. At the same time, however, Suga continued by saying that “the basic position of Japan has not changed, that a peace treaty would be concluded after resolving the issue of the return of the four islands.”
The true nature of the “new approach” has not therefore been clearly defined by Japanese officials. It can, however, be discerned by examining the other key announcement that accompanied the Sochi meeting. This was the unveiling by the Abe administration of an eight-point economic cooperation plan, which proposes enhanced cooperation in the areas of energy, transportation, agriculture, technology, healthcare, urban infrastructure, culture, and small and medium-sized business. Abe also accepted an invitation to attend the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September. Established in 2015, this annual business event is intended to attract foreign investment to the Russian Far East.
The purpose of the “new approach” is therefore apparent. The Japanese side intends to use economic cooperation as political leverage and the implementation of the eight-point plan will be tied to progress on the territorial issue. This interpretation is given support by Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiroshige Seko who had said, “We, of course, believe that peace treaty negotiations and joint economic projects with Russia should be conducted in parallel.”
It is still early in the history of the “new approach,” but what initial assessment can be made of its prospects? In the economic field, there have already been significant signs of progress. This reflects the Russian side’s genuine enthusiasm for closer commercial ties with Japan, a sentiment enhanced by the fact that close political relations with China have yet to deliver the hoped for economic results. Accordingly, the Russian authorities have moved quickly to capitalize on the opportunity presented by the eight-point plan. Proposals have been put forward by Russia’s Rosneft about increased energy cooperation. Additionally, Yurii Trutnev, Russian deputy prime minister and presidential plenipotentiary envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District, was dispatched to Japan on May 16. His delegation, which included the governors of the Sakhalin and Khabarovsk regions, proposed 29 investment projects worth an estimated $16 billion. There was also discussion of the idea of Japanese companies opening medical centers in the Russian Far East.
Since the Sochi meeting, the Japanese side has also taken steps to give substance to the eight-point plan. For instance, when the Japanese government announced on May 23 that funds for infrastructure exports were to be increased to $200 billion over the next five years, specific emphasis was placed on Russia, as well as Asia and Africa. Furthermore, on June 8, members of Keidanren’s Japan-Russia Business Cooperation Committee traveled to Moscow to meet with Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, Minister for Economic Development Alexei Ulyukaev, and Minister for the Development of the Russian Far East Alexander Galushka. This was the first such visit since 2011. Prior to departure, Teruo Asada, head of the delegation and chairman of Marubeni, confirmed the connection between the visit and the “new approach.” He told journalists, “We would like to present concrete ways to put into practice the eight-point cooperation plan that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed to President Putin.” He continued, “Prime Minister Abe plans to attend the Eastern Economic Forum … and hopes that new project contracts can be formed. We aim to do the groundwork for this during our trip.”
There are therefore considerable signs of activity in the economic aspects of the “new approach.” As noted, however, the intention of the Abe administration is to use this proposed economic cooperation to induce concessions from Russia on the territorial dispute. The first post-Sochi opportunity to make progress in this regard will be on June 22, when peace treaty negotiations at the deputy foreign minister level are due to resume. In the same month, Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the Russian Duma and close Putin confidant, will travel to Tokyo for the official opening of the annual festival of Russian culture in Japan. If Naryshkin meets with Abe (as he did when visiting for the same purpose in 2015), this will present another opportunity for high-level discussions. It has also been reported that Shotaro Yachi, chair of Japan’s National Security Council and one of Abe’s most trusted advisers, will be sent to Russia in July to meet with Nikolai Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council.
Following on from these summer meetings and the September summit in Vladivostok, it has been suggested that Putin may be invited to visit Japan towards the end of the year. At an informal summit, which could be held in Yamaguchi (Abe’s home prefecture), the Japanese leader will hope to make use of his personal ties with Putin, as well as the countries’ developing economic relations, to force a final settlement to the territorial dispute.
There is evident logic to Abe’s “new approach” and to the schedule of meetings that have been arranged. Unfortunately for the Japanese side, however, there are no indications that economic momentum can successfully be converted into political concessions. Indeed, in the weeks since the Sochi summit, the Russian authorities have made it extremely clear that Japan should not anticipate a favorable resolution to the territorial problem.
First, speaking at the Russia-ASEAN summit on May 20, Putin explicitly rejected any linkage between economic cooperation and the disputed islands, saying, “We do not connect one thing with the other.” He also dismissed the idea of Japan effectively buying the islands by means of the offer of economic cooperation, stating “We are ready to buy many things, but there is nothing we will sell.” Further cold water was thrown on the “new approach” by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who, during a media interview on May 31, stressed “We are not giving up the Kuril Islands and we are not begging Japan for a peace treaty.”
These words aside, Russia’s recent actions also point to a hardline stance on the territorial issue. At the end of May, it was announced that two Russian deputy defense ministers would visit the Russian Far East, including two of the disputed islands. There has also been the continuation of investment in new military facilities on the Kuril chain. In particular, at the start of June it was reported that Russia had begun to refurbish an old Japanese airfield on Matua Island (Matsuwa in Japanese). Although this island is not one of the disputed four, this decision highlights the growing attention that the Russian military is giving to the strategically significant Kuril chain. Also at the start of June, it was confirmed that all of the Kuril Islands would become a special economic zone within a year. The intention of this plan is to use lower tax rates to encourage Russian businesses to invest on the islands, especially in the seafood and tourism industries. Evidently these moves are not consistent with the idea that Russia may soon be prevailed upon to transfer the islands to Japan.
Last of all, on June 8-9 Russian and Chinese naval vessels entered the contiguous zone around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands and remained there for several hours. If the actions of the two navies were coordinated, this could indicate growing Russian support for China’s position in this territorial dispute (officially Russia is neutral). This would represent a major blow to Japan’s strategy of seeking to draw Russia away from China.
Overall then, while the intentions of Japan’s “new approach” are clearly discernable, it is unlikely to deliver the hoped for breakthrough in bilateral relations and will certainly not secure the return of the four islands. Instead, the Russian side’s words and deeds since May 6 have unambiguously demonstrated that, although all economic cooperation will be warmly welcomed, Japan should have no illusions about this leading to Russian political concessions.
James D.J. Brown is Associate Professor of Political Science at Temple University, Japan Campus. His research focuses on Japanese-Russian relations and he has recently published a book on the countries’ territorial dispute (Japan, Russia and their Territorial Dispute, Routledge 2016).