Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 52

As Japan battles a deepening political and economic crisis, the chances for Tokyo and Moscow to maintain any diplomatic momentum in their already troubled relations (see the Monitor, February 15) appear to be sinking as fast as Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori’s personal political fortunes. The many question marks overhanging Japan’s political and economic future are especially relevant now, less than two weeks before a scheduled and much-anticipated Japanese-Russian summit meeting scheduled to take place in Irkutsk on March 25. The two countries have been struggling mightily for over three years now to finalize a peace treaty agreement which would also include a resolution of some sort of the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. And, assuming it is held, those two related issues will undoubtedly dominate the March 25 meeting. But any forward momentum which had been achieved in this area during Boris Yeltsin’s presidency has already long since dissipated, while even the brief glimmer of hope which followed Vladimir Putin’s entry onto the scene as Russian president appears more recently also to have been extinguished. Against this background, a meeting in Irkutsk on March 25 between Putin and Mori (or a successor to Mori) would seem to hold little prospect of improving relations between the two countries, and might serve only to increase the frustration already felt in both Moscow and Tokyo.

Despite such obvious reasons for postponing the summit, Russian and Japanese officials have continued in recent days to insist that the meeting will take place as planned. That, at least, was the message Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov conveyed on March 11. Losyukov, who oversees Russia’s relations with Tokyo, told reporters that Moscow foresees Mori still in the prime minister’s post on March 25 and believes that his meeting with Putin will take place as scheduled. The Kremlin was sticking to the same message. In separate comments to reporters, also on March 11, presidential foreign policy advisor Sergei Prikhodko said that preparations for the March 25 summit were continuing as planned. Sources said to be close to those who are preparing the March 25 meeting likewise said that no announcements were planned regarding either a change of date or a change in the discussion agenda for the Irkutsk talks. They suggested that the Kuril Islands territorial dispute would still figure prominently in the talks.

That little progress is likely on this nettlesome issue was suggested by Losyukov himself on March 3, however, when he publicly rejected a proposal by which Moscow might be prepared to hand over at least two of the islands. “The idea of handing over two islands to start with, and then another two–well, it represents no shift in the Japanese position, which is unacceptable to us,” Losyukov said. The remarks suggest that Moscow is backing off of an initiative which Putin himself mooted last year. It dusted off a 1956 Soviet-Japanese Declaration–one which called for Moscow to return two of the four disputed islands in exchange for the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries–and suggested that it might serve as the basis for a resolution of the territorial issue today. The Russian initiative is believed to have foundered, however, on Tokyo’s continuing determination to win back all four of the islands. The islands in dispute, called the Northern Territories in Japan, were seized from Tokyo by Soviet forces at the close of World War II. The inability of the two countries to resolve the territorial dispute has stymied efforts since that time to sign a peace treaty formally ending the war, and remains the chief obstacle to fully normalized and cooperative relations between Russia and Japan today.

Given Japan’s status as the world’s number two economic power and its hopes over the past decade to parlay that economic strength into a more influential global role, the weakness and disarray of the Japanese government on the eve of new talks with Russia is something of an irony. That weakness is manifested in the fact that, even should Mori manage to stay in power and make it to the Irkutsk meeting, he will be an obvious lame duck with little authority and no political weight to make the sort of compromises most likely necessary to begin forging a deal on the disputed islands. Japan’s political crisis is so deep, moreover, that there appears at present no possible successor who might step onto the scene and reinvigorate the negotiation process with Moscow. One of those named as a possible successor to Mori, Ryutaro Hashimoto, is the former prime minister who joined with Boris Yeltsin to launch the now-deadlocked Japanese-Russian peace treaty initiative. Hashimoto’s elevation might for that reason boost Russian-Japanese ties. But he is considered a long shot for the prime minister post and, in any event, carries political baggage that would likely hinder him from emerging as a strong leader.

Russian-Japanese negotiations may also be hamstrung currently by Japan’s economic weakness. The talks between the two countries up to now have rested on the unstated but obvious proposition that Russian concessions on the territorial issue would bring forth Japanese compensation in the form of massive economic aid to Russia. But the Japanese government is probably in no position at the present time to deliver on an agreement of that sort, a shortcoming that further undermines the chances for any immediate settlement.

There are, moreover, other foreign policy differences which separate Japan from Russia, differences which seem likely to deepen in the months ahead and which may prove an additional obstacle to any settlement of the territorial dispute. Those differences include what are likely to be, under the Bush Administration, closer ties between Japan and the United States, especially in the defense sphere. Russia has already objected loudly to a proposed U.S.-Japanese theater missile defense system in Asia, and U.S. planning in this area and on the broader issue of national missile defense could pit the United States and Japan against Russia and China. Tensions of that sort, it would seem, would do little to incline Moscow toward dealing on the territorial issue. Russia is also pushing hard diplomatically for an enhanced role in peace talks on the Korean Peninsula, and that effort could introduce additional tensions into the Japanese-Russian relationship, particularly if Tokyo goes along with what is likely to be the Bush administration’s harder line on North Korea. All of these circumstances could force the Japanese government to do some hard thinking about its policy vis-a-vis Russia and the Kuril Islands, an assessment that could begin on March 19, when Mori is scheduled to head to Washington for summit talks which will precede by less than a week the Irkutsk meeting (AFP, Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 3; Reuters, March 5; Russian agencies, March 11; AP, March 10, 12).