Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 139

The brief excitement created by President Vladimir Putin’s mid-November announcement that the Russian government would be prepared to honor the 1956 Soviet-Japanese declaration (pledging to return two disputed islands to Japan) has evaporated as quickly as it appeared. The brief meeting between Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi at the APEC summit in Santiago, Chile, on November 21 resulted in nothing but continued stalemate. Furthermore, it is now doubtful whether Putin will actually visit Japan in early 2005, as earlier promised.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov first made the Russian admission that it would honor the 1956 declaration on November 14, but his offer met with little enthusiasm among Japanese government officials. There were also pronounced Russian voices of opposition to the 1956 declaration (see EDM, November 17).

In Santiago both Koizumi and Putin said that it was “necessary” to sign a peace treaty and to resolve the territorial dispute. Koizumi went so far as to say that a rapprochement would “serve the strategic interests of both nations” (Yomiuri Shimbun, November 23).

Both states share a concern about China’s rise and the potential for instability in Northeast Asia around the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait. An editorial in the conservative Yomiuri Shimbun (November 24) elucidated these very points in relation to the development of Japanese-Russian relations. But there appear to be differing opinions on the means to these ends in Moscow and Tokyo. Both leaders admitted that the two sides are still far apart. Koizumi did, however, urge Putin to visit Japan in time for the World Expo in Aichi Prefecture in March 2005. Putin said he would like to visit, but when they parted no specific date was set (Asahi Shimbun, November 23).

The two sides did agree to seek an early resumption of the six-party talks on Korean Peninsula security issues. Koizumi also thanked the Russian government for ratifying the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, and he agreed that the two countries would cooperate in implementing the pact. With Russia’s ratification, the pact will take effect in February 2005 (Japan Times, November 23).

But on a more ominous note, specialists from both governments speculated that the failure to set a date for Putin’s Japan visit suggests that the Putin is holding the visit up as a means of exerting pressure on the Japanese government to reach some sort of compromise agreement, whether agreeing to a peace treaty without any exchange of territory, or the return of just two islands (Asahi Shimbun, November 23).

In an interview with Tokyo Shimbun (November 24), Deputy Foreign Minister and former Russian ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov said that he doubted that Putin would visit, as things stand now. “There is no merit for him to visit unless there is some expectation that the [territorial] issue can be resolved,” stated Panov.

Some observers have suggested that if a serious breakthrough is to happen, then some third party, namely the United States, might have to come forward to act as a mediator (Asia Times, November 24). The United States has offered to assist the Japanese on two occasions over the past dozen years, first under President George H.W. Bush, and then under President Bill Clinton, but was rebuffed on both occasions. In fact, what it may take for the two sides to come to an agreement is some sort of exogenous shock. Some sort of grave crisis is at times the only thing that can overcome the inertia of Japanese leaders to act. It has happened on several occasions in Japan over the past five decades. One need only look at how the Japanese government reacted to events such as the Korean War in 1950-53, the security treaty protests of 1960, the energy crises of the 1970s, the trade wars with the United States in the 1980s, the Gulf War of 1990-91, and the Korean nuclear missile scares of the 1990s. The Russian government seems to be ready to carry out a deal, but so far its partner is unwilling to come to the table.