The Kremlin has urged Japan to show a “more concrete” interest in economic ties with Russia, while Moscow is yet to finalize its own Pacific oil pipeline plan. Meanwhile, prospects of a major economic breakthrough in bilateral relations have been hindered by the long-standing territorial dispute.
Earlier this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Japan needs to clarify its interest in the Pacific oil pipeline. “The problem is more or less clear with our Chinese partners, but not everything has been settled yet, and if Japan is really interested, its interest should be made more concrete,” Putin said (Itar-Tass, June 6).
In an apparent overture towards Japan, Russian officials have indicated that a major energy deal with Tokyo is still possible. Russia may sign agreements on energy cooperation with Japan during President Putin’s upcoming visit to Tokyo, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on June 6. The Japanese are interested in cooperation, and “We are prepared to cooperate with them in the energy sector on terms suitable to us,” Lavrov told a cabinet meeting chaired by Putin (Itar-Tass, June 6).
However, “suitable terms” are yet to be fully revealed. Last December, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov approved the Japan-bound Taishet-Nakhodka pipeline route. But then Kremlin chief-of-staff Dmitry Medvedev announced in April that Pacific oil pipeline plans would be finalized by May 1. But no clear Russian pipeline blueprint has been made public so far.
Meanwhile, a Japanese newswire, citing anonymous sources, speculated that Russia has moved Japan to the back burner. Kyodo reported that Russia’s presidential administration has removed Japan from its Asian diplomacy priority list, as bilateral negotiations over disputed islands stalled and Japan failed to invest in Russia.
The agency claimed that the Kremlin was upset by Japan’s adamant stance on the decades-old Kuril Island dispute. Japan’s removal from the priority list resulted from the failure to arrange President Putin’s visit to Japan in April, the report said. For the same reason, Russia revealed plans to build a branch oil pipeline to China first, instead of giving priority to linking the pipeline to its Pacific coast as sought by Japan, the agency alleged (Kyodo, May 12).
The Kyodo report seemingly came as a trial balloon aimed at prompting Russia to clarify its stance on relations with Japan. However, Moscow is yet to comment or officially dismiss speculation that Japan has been downgraded in Russian foreign policy goals.
Japan and Russia have been trying to arrange Putin’s trip to Japan in 2005, first in April and now by the end of June. Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi agreed to step up arrangements for an early visit by Putin to Japan, when they met on May 9 in the Kremlin on the sidelines of Russian-hosted events commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Allied victory over Nazi Germany. Koizumi reportedly expressed his hope that the Russian president would visit Tokyo as early as possible. In response, Putin said, “I’m looking forward to visiting Japan.” But Koizumi apparently failed to set specific dates for a visit that could help make headway in resolving the long-standing territorial dispute between the two countries.
The Kurils remain a major irritant in bilateral relations. Russia and Japan still hold opposite views on the “islands problem,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko told Channel 1 television, commenting on Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit to Japan on May 31 (RIA-Novosti, June 5). However, Yakovenko’s comments were not in line with earlier reports, suggesting that while in Tokyo Lavrov did not discuss the territorial dispute at all (Itar-Tass, May 31).
Russian academics have also been exploring compromise solutions. Vasily Mikheyev, head of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, suggested a sort of trade-off: Japan should take two islands instead of the four it currently claims and sign a peace treaty with Russia in exchange for Russian support for Japan’s bid for a permanent place at the UN Security Council (RIA-Novosti, May 31).
But Putin’s special envoy in the Far East, Konstantin Pulikovsky, ruled out any territorial concessions to Japan. “I think it will not happen,” he said. “Maybe it could happen eventually, but it will be done by future generations, in 50 or 100 years from now, and not by us,” Pulikovsky argued. He also urged Moscow to develop the Kuril Islands, including energy and transportation sectors (Interfax, May 25).
Moreover, in early June Nikolai Patrushev, head of the Federal Security Service, the agency in charge of the country’s border-guard forces, traveled to Sakhalin region and the South Kuril Islands to inspect border facilities. In an apparent symbolic gesture, local servicemen reportedly have built a Russian Orthodox cross and a chapel on Kunashir shore, a site that can be seen from Hokkaido (Strana.ru, June 6). The message was far too clear: the Japanese were told to forget about “Northern Territories.”
Given Russia’s apparent hard-line stance on the territorial issue, it remains uncertain what kind of clarity Moscow seeks from Japan on the economic front.