Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 26

Despite initial hopes that Russian President Vladimir Putin would visit Japan in March, the month is rapidly approaching without a date being set. Thirty years ago, at the height of detente, there was great hope for Russo-Japanese relations. The script then stated that, despite tense relations after World War II and the Soviet seizure of the four Kuril Islands, there was a natural complementarity between the Soviet economy and Japan’s developed industries that would facilitate a renewed economic and eventually political relationship. Likewise, common concerns about Red China were thought to be a factor that would bring the two governments closer together. Specifically Japan was thought to need Siberian resources, including oil and gas, and that its financial capital could develop those resources with Soviet support. That large-scale investment, coupled with common fears about China, would then become the basis for a negotiated settlement and peace treaty resolving the Kuril Islands issue on the basis of a compromise.

This scenario was never realized under Soviet rule. In 1992 there were hopes that the advent of a new Westernizing post-Soviet regime under Boris Yeltsin would lead to a resolution of the territorial issue. But once again expectations were dashed. Yeltsin had to cancel his summit because of domestic opposition and because Japan still refused to accept anything short of the return of all four islands.

This history is important, because it cautions observers against taking renewed discussions of Russo-Japanese rapprochement too seriously. Once again a Russian president, this time Vladimir Putin, was supposed to come to Japan, and once again the visit has been postponed because, among other things, Japan demands all four islands and Russia will at most consider only returning two of them.

Yet both sides are clearly alarmed over China, Japan even more visibly than Russia. Although Moscow encouragingly opted for a pipeline to Japan from Taishet in Siberia rather than to China, and Japan indicated that it would largely finance the deal, that pipeline has not yet been built. Moreover, it is entirely possible, as some in Moscow have it, that Russia will use it to sell oil to China as was promised earlier. It is clear in retrospect that one reason for the decision to choose a Japanese pipeline over a Chinese one was concern over Chinese influence on Russian energy, combined with a concern over China’s overall rising economic power. However, Japan’s continuing obduracy over the Kurils, and Russia’s equal obduracy about surrendering any territory to any claimant, particularly an Asian one that arouses the not-so-latent racism of the Russian elite and population towards Asians, have proven, once again, to be formidable obstacles to rapprochement with Japan.

However, the inability to negotiate a date or agenda for a Putin visit to Japan could entail serious costs for both sides. For Japan, a channel to Moscow is very useful, given the rise of China that alarms it so much and that has led it to revise its defense planning. One key concern is China’s competition with Japan for energy and its claims to the Senkaku Islands and thus to energy deposits in the Sea of Japan. Chinese naval probes and claims to the islands clearly rattle Japan’s leaders. Second, Japan and Russia also have shared, vital interests regarding the successful outcome of the negotiations to prevent North Korea’s nuclearization. While everyone but Pyongyang shares that goal, the subsequent shape of relations in and around Korea could create an issue that brings Russia and Japan together against China on certain questions. Third, failure to have a reliable energy source in Russia will oblige Japan to imitate India and China which have gone global to find reliable sources of energy for their growing economies. That implies a higher financial cost to Japan, given the costs of doing business in more unstable areas that are also more distant from Japan.

Russia will also have to bear significant costs if its relationship with Japan fails. It will then be unlikely that the pipeline to Nakhodka and then onward to Japan will be built. Indeed, Russia will not guarantee loans for the pipeline project now. In that case Japanese investment and trade, which everyone regards now as insufficient, will not even be forthcoming. Nor will Russia be able to work effectively with Japan in regard to North Korean issues or to counter China’s economic power. Third, Russia’s reliability as a partner in Northeast Asia and elsewhere on that continent will be greatly diminished and its overall strategy for regaining an important status in Asia as a major energy provider and reliable partner will then be in ruins. As that strategy has been a major part of Putin’s foreign policy agenda and essential to his vision of a redeveloped Siberia and Russian Asia, the losses to his government and to Russia would be enormous and lasting. Once again Russian strategy in Asia will have come to naught.

While there are more exciting and somewhat “sexier” issues happening today in world politics; Russo-Japanese relations have significant and potentially enormous repercussions, whether the negotiations are carried out in corporate board rooms or diplomatic chancelleries rather than on the battlefield.

(Itar-Tass, January 13, 29, and February 2; New Times, December 2004; RIA-Novosti, January 14, 17; Agence France Presse, January 18, 26; Kommersant, January 17; Moscow Times, February 2).