Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 217

On the eve of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s November 20-22 trip to Japan for a summit in Tokyo with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a peace treaty between the two neighboring states appears elusive.

The summit comes at a difficult time for Japan in terms of deteriorating relations with China, South Korea, and North Korea. Unlike these East Asian states, Russia appears to remain unconcerned by Koizumi’s controversial visits to the Yasukuni shrine to commemorate Japan’s war dead.

Russia seems the only neighbor to maintain good relations with Japan, commented the Russian state-run news agency, RIA-Novosti. Moscow is more concerned with economic issues than Shinto rites at the Yasukuni shrine.

Unlike China, Russia did not try to prevent Japan from becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council (RIA-Novosti, November 10). There has been speculation that a behind-the-scenes deal was cut, whereby Japan supports the Russian bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), possibly in return for support of Japan’s move toward a seat on the UN Security Council.

On November 14, the Japanese daily Yomiuri reported, quoting sources in the Japanese government, that Russian and Japanese representatives had reached an agreement regarding Japan’s support of Russia’s WTO accession bid. The agreement would also cut tariffs on about 9,000 Russian products, including automobiles, auto parts, and farm produce. Russia’s Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref confirmed that Russia and Japan would sign an agreement on Russia’s accession to the WTO during Putin’s visit (RIA-Novosti, November 17).

Russia now views Japan as one of its top trading partners. Last year, bilateral trade was up by nearly 50%, totaling some $9 billion. The Russian-Japanese trade turnover, which has grown by about 20% in the last few months, is expected to exceed $10 billion by the end of 2005.

When Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Japan’s ambassador to Moscow, Issei Nomura, discussed preparations for Putin’s visit to Japan, they agreed that the summit had to give “a new impetus to the development of relations in all areas and become a landmark on the way toward advancing Russia and Japan toward a real partnership” (RIA-Novosti, November 11).

Japanese officials seem keen to paint a somewhat rosier picture. In an interview with the official Rossiiskaya gazeta daily, Japanese ambassador Nomura claimed that bilateral ties had entered a “new era.” Japan aims to solving the Kuril Island dispute by developing political, economic, and cultural relations between the two countries, Nomura said (Rossiiskaya gazeta, November 17).

However, Russian officials would not subscribe to the “new era” point of view. Russia and Japan are facing difficulty in compiling a joint political document to be signed by Putin and Koizumi due to differences over the issue of concluding a bilateral peace treaty, Russian presidential foreign policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko said on November 15. He was also quoted as saying the two countries were “completely split” over the Kuril Islands.

On November 16 Japan’s government spokesman dismissed the comments. “We’re currently working hard on preparations for Putin’s visit…it is extremely regrettable that the president’s aide has made such a comment,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said. This exchange suggests that the Japanese are keener to maintain a semblance of decent relations with Russia. In the meantime, Russian talk of a “complete split” suggested that Moscow would lose no tears if such a split becomes apparent.

Prime Minister Koizumi recently issued a direct appeal to the Russian public in an apparent attempt to improve bilateral relations. Russia and Japan are yet to utilize the full potential of their bilateral relations, Koizumi said on Russian RTR state-run television on November 13. “I think that it is necessary to sign a peace treaty on the basis of resolving this territorial question,” Koizumi said. However, he offered a caveat: “I don’t take the position that it is impossible to develop bilateral relations without the resolution of territorial problems” (RIA-Novosti, November 13).

However, Koizumi subsequently conceded that it would be hard to work out a joint document at the summit. “We would like to consider whether it would be better to issue or refrain from it at the moment.” Koizumi admitted there is “a substantial gap” between the two countries on the “long-standing” territorial dispute. Following talks between Foreign Minister Taro Aso and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, both sides reportedly agreed that no joint statement would be issued after the summit (Kyodo, Asahi Shimbun, November 17).

There have been other Japanese trial balloons as well. For instance, Mainichi quoted an unnamed Russian Foreign Ministry source that revealed Putin was about to present a new proposal on joint economic exploitation of the South Kurils at the meeting with Koizumi. But Russian Ambassador to Japan Alexander Losyukov promptly denied these reports, saying, “I know nothing about this” (Interfax, November 15).

Not surprisingly, Russian media tend to be pessimistic about relations with Japan. During his five and a half years in office, Putin has visited Japan only once, in September 2000. Izvestiya cited a Kremlin source as suggesting that any progress on bilateral peace treaty is unlikely in the next 10 years (Izvestiya, November 16). “The Samurais lost a battle for the islands,” because now Moscow insists on its sovereignty over all four disputed islands,” Argumenty i Fakty commented (November 17).

Russia and Japan have apparently opted to forget about the islands, at least during Putin’s visit. Both sides agree that bilateral discussions over the political declaration remained deadlocked hence it was likely not to be signed after Putin’s visit, Kommersant wrote. However, the paper added, both leaders would be keen to avoid an open confrontation during the summit (Kommersant, November 17).