Signs are multiplying that Moscow has launched a new initiative toward Tokyo to improve Russo-Japanese relations. In addition, this initiative is part of Moscow’s never-ending quest to be considered a major Asian player. The evidence of these twin initiatives became visible on Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s Asian trip in January and February. Thus, Lavrov said Russia does not need to “reset” its relations with Asian countries as it always has been an inseparable part of Asia. Yet, at the same time, he urged the “effective involvement of Russia, primarily its Eastern Siberian and Far Eastern regions in Asian integration processes” (Interfax, January 26, 2012). Unfortunately nobody is excluding Russia and the failure of integration to date is largely due to Russia’s autarchic and predatory economic policies. Similarly, Lavrov again called for an Asian security architecture that meets the needs of all the states (Interfax, January 26, 2012). But once again Moscow’s unforced inveterate support for North Korea and attacks on US policy underscore how one-sided its policies actually are. Equally, Lavrov reiterated calls for a legally binding document on security, as stemming from its joint proposal with China in 2010 for collective security in Asia (Interfax, January 30, 2012).
Lavrov also outlined the priorities of his trip, as Russia is the APEC chairman and its host for 2012. These priorities center on obtaining foreign trade and investment to help move Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East further into an innovation and development track. Consequently, Moscow has to persuade its Asian partners that its economy and the formation of a single economic area with Kazakhstan and Belarus justify that Asian trade and investment (Izvestiya, January 27). In this context the initiative toward Japan largely appears to be a new effort to persuade Tokyo, which is deemed hungry for opportunities to invest in Russia, especially due to its supposedly weakened condition after the calamities of 2011 – without making any progress on the disputed issue of the Kuril Islands. Thus, Lavrov is calling once again for a dialogue of historians on the topic and refusing to accept any public debate on the issue (Izvestiya, Interfax, January 27). Lavrov also even raised a new obstacle to the resolution of the Islands dispute by strongly implying that it would have to be resolved by a referendum in Russia, an interpretation that the foreign ministry immediately denounced as a gross misinterpretation of his words (Interfax, January 29, 31).
Although he also announced that both governments intend to schedule peace talks (i.e., to negotiate a formal peace treaty to World War II and presumably determine the islands’ status) in Lavrov’s discussions with Japanese leaders they failed to hold substantive talks on the Kuril Islands and foreign observers do not believe any progress has been or soon will be made in the territorial dispute (Jiji Press, January 28; Xinhua, January 29; Interfax, January 28). Moreover, any tension in the relationship is solely due to Japanese emotional outbursts at the visits by President Dmitry Medvedev and other officials to the islands. Russia is clearly not at fault according to Lavrov (Interfax, January 27).
While Japan clearly does want to upgrade economic and security cooperation with Russia and Lavrov claims to want Japanese investment in fishing and joint projects on the islands, Moscow expects or is waiting for Tokyo’s proposals (Interfax, January 26; Jiji Press, January 28; Kyodo World Service, January 27, 28). Russia clearly wants enhanced economic cooperation with Japan, but it is quite unclear what it is prepared to do to obtain this goal (Kyodo World Service, January 26).
Ultimately the flaws in Moscow’s approach are that it expects other states to do what it is unwilling or unable to do for itself. Japanese investment has largely been held up by the dispute over the Kuril Islands, or what Japan calls the Northern Territories, and by the nature of Russian economic policy. Few Japanese see much value to investing in Russian energy and have previously evinced skepticism about Moscow’s capabilities and holdings in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East. Furthermore, past experience of Russia’s expropriation of Japanese energy companies continues to act as a brake on Japan. So too does Russia’s security cooperation with China on the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoutyi in Chinese) Islands and Moscow’s unwillingness to take a hard line with North Korea. And, as noted above, the fundamental problem in the Russian Far East is the predatory policy followed to date by Moscow that has failed to bring this area back to a development track. Until that policy is reversed, little Asian investment from anyone is to be expected. In the final analysis Moscow is proposing that Tokyo make all the concessions demanded in return for promises that have already been broken in the past. Cynically put, this amounts to a swindle and until Russia realizes it cannot expect help from others without reciprocal concessions in return, it is unlikely to exercise much influence on Japan or secure the Asian position it clearly covets.