Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 131

In keeping with the Kremlin’s current focus on dealings with Russia’s Asian neighbors, President Vladimir Putin turned his attention this week to both Russian-Japanese ties and his upcoming (albeit still only tentatively scheduled) summit talks in Tokyo. In a television interview given to the private Japanese Fuji Television Network, Putin apparently described Japan as “one of the most important partners of Russia, not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but also in the world.” Putin also spoke of Moscow’s desire that Japan become “a powerful factor in both international and regional politics,” and told Japanese viewers that a “powerful Japan” could be a significant and highly important element” in maintaining international stability. In what may have been an effort to establish a more personal connection with the Japanese, Putin also elaborated a bit during the interview regarding his capabilities in the martial arts. He suggested that Judo–Putin reportedly has a black belt–has provided him with an “evolutionary” philosophy that he has also applied to the art of diplomacy (AFP, Reuters, Russian agencies, July 4).

The talk of Judo aside, Putin’s remarks were interesting on several counts. For one, he counted Japan as yet one more of Moscow’s most important international partners. That sort of formulation seems now to have become standard in Putin’s meetings with leaders from key foreign governments. In addition, Putin’s suggestion that Japan should assert itself more forcefully on the world stage parallels a similar exhortation he gave to New Delhi during a recent visit to Moscow by the Indian foreign minister (see the Monitor, July 5), and appears to be directed at encouraging Tokyo to act more independently of the United States. This would be fully consistent with Moscow’s efforts to encourage international “multipolarity”–that is, the devolution of influence and power from the United States to various regional powers. Moscow has long chafed at the close relations between the United States and Japan, and has been especially critical of defense ties between the two countries. Indeed, a proposed Japanese-U.S. theater defense system in Asia has been a particular target of Moscow’s–not to mention Beijing’s–ire, and is likely to be on the discussion agenda when Putin finally does get to Tokyo.

Putin will visit Japan later this month for the summit of the Group of Seven countries plus Russia to be held on Okinawa from July 21-23. But while he is scheduled to hold talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori on the sidelines of the summit, diplomatic sources have suggested that key bilateral issues will not be discussed (The Japan Times, July 2).

If government sources are to be believed, the issues will be a subject of attention when Putin travels to Tokyo for an official summit meeting with Mori in the first week of September. The scheduling of the summit, which apparently has not been fully finalized, is no small thing. Russia and Japan have remained sharply divided over the fate of the Kuril Islands–which were seized by the Soviet Union at the close of World War II and whose return is now sought by Tokyo–and that disagreement (along with Boris Yeltsin’s health) had been a primary reason why Moscow resisted scheduling a Russian-Japanese summit meeting. That Putin is now planning to travel to Tokyo suggests that the two sides believe they now have resolved enough of their differences to make the trip worthwhile.

On what grounds this might have been done remains unclear, however. That Moscow and Tokyo remain deeply divided over the territorial dispute–and that their peace treaty talks remain thereby deadlocked–has been suggested yet again in comments made by officials over the past several months. In May, for example, former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto was quoted as saying that both Russia and China need to sign the peace treaty, but that this is impossible without a resolution of the territorial dispute (Russian agencies, May 16). Hashimoto’s remarks suggest that Japan’s position on this issue remains unchanged.

That would seem to apply to the Russian position as well. On June 21 Russian Foreign Ministry sources restated Moscow’s well-known view that the two sides should proceed toward sign a peace treaty–while putting off a settlement of the territorial dispute to an unspecified later date. They suggested that Moscow would continue to insist on this decoupling of the peace treaty from the territorial issue on the grounds of defending Russian “national interests.” They also repeated now standard Russian arguments that the two sides should move forward in developing economic relations–regardless of whether the territorial dispute is resolved (Russian agencies, June 21). Russia’s cash-strapped and increasingly destitute Far East is in dire need of Japanese investment, but Tokyo has been reticent to move forward too quickly in that area while the territorial issue–its primary interest–remains unresolved.

Putin’s remarks this week about relations with Japan are yet another reminder of the almost extraordinary attention the Kremlin is now devoting to Asia. In recent weeks Moscow has already hosted visits by India’s External Affairs and Defense Ministers, and by top envoys from both North and South Korea. Yesterday, Putin traveled to Dushanbe for talks with Chinese President Jiang Zemin and Central Asian leaders. On July 18-19 the Russian president will travel to China for an official summit meeting with Jiang. That will be followed in quick succession by a groundbreaking July 19 visit to Pyongyang for talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, and then by the G-7 summit in Japan. As indicated above, a Russian-Japanese summit has been tentatively scheduled for early September, while there have been suggestions that Putin could also travel this year to South Korea. In early October he will reportedly travel to New Delhi for yet another summit meeting–this one with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.