Tokyo Report

Resetting Japan-Russia Relations

Challenges for a new prime minister

By Michito Tsuruoka for
Resetting Japan-Russia Relations
Credit: Mikhail Metzel, TASS News Agency Pool Photo via AP

Japan’s new prime minister, Suga Yoshihide, vows to continue what his predecessor Abe Shinzo pursued, which is hardly surprising as Suga had always been at the center of the Abe government. One area where we are likely to see major change, however, is policy toward Russia, both in style and substance. A reset is needed and coming.

Abe was personally committed to improving relations with Moscow, hoping to conclude a peace treaty – in the Japanese context, this means getting back at least some of the islands of the Russian-controlled Northern Territories from Russia. The former prime minister used every opportunity to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin and propose, among other investment projects in Russia’s far east, Joint Economic Activities in the Northern Territories in a bid to help create conditions under which the islands could be returned. While some modest economic projects did get underway, they have failed to stimulate peace treaty negotiations.

Still, it is too early to dismiss everything Abe did for Japan-Russia relations. First, the fact that Abe and Putin met on a regular basis and kept the conversation going between the two countries was a new phenomenon. Maintaining a functioning relationship with your neighbor is always better than confrontation.

Second, the relationship between Japan and Russia became established as an element of stability in an otherwise volatile strategic landscape of Northeast Asia: What is at stake in Japan-Russia relations is more than just territorial negotiations. The general improvement of the bilateral relationship might have helped prevent Moscow and Beijing, at least, from ganging up against Tokyo. It also helped Russia avoid over-dependence on China and maintain a certain degree of strategic autonomy in Asia, which is in line with Japan’s interest. In other words, regardless of what happens with territorial negotiations, relations with Russia remain important in strategic terms, including as part of Japan’s Eurasian strategy.

Yet, striking a balance between the territorial and peace treaty negotiations and broader strategic considerations is never going to be an easy task, not least for politicians, who do not want to be seen as downplaying the former.

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This leads to one of the challenges that Suga is to face as prime minister, namely how to define Tokyo’s short- and medium-term goals vis-à-vis Russia. If Suga wants to stay focused only on the Northern Territories, he would be advised not to spend too much energy and address other important issues instead, as it has become abundantly clear that getting the islands back from Russia is extremely difficult.

Alternatively, if Suga instead sees a broader strategic context in which the Japan-Russia relationship is situated, he will need to start a series of new discussions in Japan on its Russia policy. While those who want to keep focusing on the territorial issues might oppose such a move, there need to be more open public debates on what Japan wants to achieve in realistic terms and what cost it is prepared to accept. Abe and his cabinet ministers were extremely cautious and avoided talking about the negotiations with Russia, whereas Putin always spoke eloquently about Russia’s position and concerns, which tended to dominate the scene. This needs to be redressed.

It is indicative that Suga, in his first press conference after assuming power, said “I want to build stable relationships with our neighbors, including China and Russia,” without showing any particular passion on the topic. This somewhat detached attitude could prove to be useful after Abe’s highly personified approach.

In addition to involving the Japanese public, there are two more sets of audiences and actors for Suga to engage. First, the Russian public. Abe largely failed to show the Russians why returning (giving away) some islands to Japan would not only be in Japan’s, but also in Russia’s interest. Abe relied on his personal relationship with Putin, believing that he was the man who could decide. In the post-Abe period, Tokyo will need to make a greater effort to reach out to the Russian public, with a convincing argument, not just on the territories, but also on strategic, economic and other issues. It is delusional to expect Russia’s president to be able to concede its territory against public opposition.

Second, the deadlocked state of the Japan-Russia negotiations has revealed the vital importance of the U.S. factor. The Japan-Russia negotiations were never an exclusively bilateral affair. For instance, Russia demanded a binding commitment that no U.S. troops would ever be stationed in the returned islands. Russia was, is and will remain serious. That was not a bluff.

Preventing the troops of other countries, particularly America, from coming closer to its border is something that the Soviet Union and Russia have consistently tried to ensure, as seen for instance during the unification of Germany and NATO enlargement. The U.S. accepted the special restrictions on the former East German territories and new NATO members regarding the stationing of foreign troops because it was Washington that was pushing those agendas.

The biggest difference this time around is that the U.S. has not shown any interest in helping Japan. For Tokyo to get the U.S. on board, it needs to articulate a convincing case to Washington as to why it is in the U.S. interest to see Japan and Russia conclude a peace treaty and accept some restrictions regarding the returned islands as a pro quid quo. Sharing a bigger strategic picture – certainly going beyond the territorial issues – with the U.S. is urgently needed. In short, before talking to the Russians, Tokyo needs to talk to the Americans. This also shows why achieving rapprochement with Russia while U.S.-Russia relations are adversarial will always be unrealistic.

Following Abe’s unusually high level of personal commitment to relations with Moscow and the deadlocked situation, it is all conceivable that Suga will downplay the topic. Resetting the relationship hence means a pause. However, Russia will not go anywhere and Japan will always need to manage relations with its huge neighbor.

Michito Tsuruoka is an associate professor at Keio University.