The Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun is reporting that Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is interested in visiting the disputed Southern Kuril Islands; the “Northern Territories” in Japanese parlance. Koizumi hopes to at least make a helicopter or boat tour of the islands as soon as September, even if he cannot visit the islands in person (Asahi Shimbun, August 25). No Japanese prime minister has set foot on the Kuril Islands since the Soviet Union occupied the entire archipelago at the end of World War II.
Koizumi has made clear that he hopes to improve relations with Russia, and he has made it a point to develop a close personal relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Reportedly the two major issues that Koizumi hopes to improve before he leaves office (no later than 2006) are relations with Pyongyang and with Moscow. On August 23 the Nihon Keizai Shimbun reported that, because of the continued intransigence of Pyongyang, Koizumi has clearly shifted his focus to normalizing relations with Moscow. “Normalizing” relations with Russia, however, entails resolving the territorial dispute that has dogged relations for six decades.
Certain trends are indeed pulling Moscow and Tokyo closer together. The largest factor, without doubt, is China’s rise. Both Japanese and Russian leaders, though recognizing the potential benefits of China’s vast market, are wary of Beijing’s political ambitions and military potential. Is it is no coincidence that Moscow and Tokyo made moves to significantly improve relations in 1996, the year of the Taiwan Strait crisis.
China’s surging demand for energy also provides Japan with a reason to help Russia develop its Eastern Siberian oil and gas resources, not just for Japanese consumption but also to meet Chinese needs. Advisors have reportedly urged Koizumi to engage Russia. “In order to bring about a stable supply of oil, the Prime Minister needs to be active in looking for ways to get oil from Russia” (Asahi Shimbun, August 5). Japan has been involved in the Sakhalin oil and gas projects since 1996. Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO) has agreed to purchase 35% of the first 10 million tons of liquefied natural gas from the Sakhalin II project (Daily Monitor, July 22). Meanwhile, Japan has agreed to give the Russian government 8.4 billion yen ($77.6 million) to study the feasibility of the construction of an oil pipeline from Taishet to the Pacific port of Nakhodka (Kyodo, July 12).
As in earlier periods of Japanese-Russian discussions, however, the two sides are failing to clearly communicate their intentions and to properly understand one another. A good example of this is the proposed visit by Vladimir Putin to Japan in early 2005. The Japanese government wants Putin to visit on the 150th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations: February 7, 2005. Yet February 7 is also known in Japan as “Northern Territories Day,” when all of Japan’s major dailies carry editorials demanding the return of the disputed islands. Government ministry buildings in Tokyo hang banners declaring, “The Northern Territories are OUR territories,” or “Give us back the Northern Territories!” Right-wing Uyoku sound trucks come out in force to blare patriotic messages in front of the Russian Embassy in Tokyo. Asking Putin to be in Tokyo on this particular day sends the wrong message.
Another example of misunderstanding is the apparent illusion in Japanese government circles that Putin will be willing to give back the islands, now that he has won his second term. The most common analogy given is that only a strong leader like Nixon could have visited China. But visiting a country is a far cry from ceding territory back to a neighbor. The same analogy was applied to Yeltsin after he won re-election in 1996, but he did not make any compromise over the disputed islands. Putin could surprise the world, but given the events in the Caucasus, and the potential for greater social instability in the Russian Far East, he is unlikely to be ready to give back all of the islands, as the Japanese demand.
Putin hopes to see an economic resurgence in the Russian Far East, which Japan could certainly facilitate. However, he cannot afford to alienate the residents of this region, when they have been leaving in droves since the early 1990s. The best compromise for Putin and for Russia would be to attract Japanese financial support for the beleaguered Russian Far East and in return provide Japan with something it desperately needs: proximate, reliable sources of energy. In reality, as much as Japan wants the islands back, it does not need to have the territory. It does need energy. And Russia needs the economic support. How far China’s rise will push the two states closer together remains to be seen.