Whither Russo-Japanese Relations?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 212

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin will not be visiting Japan this year or anytime soon (see EDM, October 9) and currently no agenda even exists for any such visit, Tokyo appears so desperate for reconciliation with Moscow that it has agreed to continue discussing the status of the disputed Kurile Islands and overall normalization of relations with Russia. Indeed, Putin invited Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to Moscow instead, and Abe is apparently considering accepting. But if Japan follows this path, it will be venturing into dangerous diplomatic territory. As noted at a conference hosted by the Carnegie Endowment, on November 15, several Japanese analysts and policymakers harbor the belief that Russia may be prepared to return at least two of the Kurile Islands. Moreover, they contend that if Japan and Russia are able to come to some kind of agreement on the disputed territories, this could open the way for an overall, if gradual, rapprochement between Russia and the West, which would redound to Japan’s credit (Kyodo News Service, November 15, 16; Japan Times, November 17).

However, Tokyo’s persistent chasing after Moscow probably has not strengthened its cause or reputation. For one thing, it has likely reinforced Russia’s preconceptions that Japan needs Russia more than Russia needs Japan, even though the truth is arguably the exact opposite. But additionally, it has bolstered Russia’s seeming belief that it can bully Japan, insult it with impunity, and still gain its objectives (see EDM, July 31). Illustratively, in mid-September 2015, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Japanese counterpart, Fumio Kishida, that normalization was only possible if Japan first recognized the “historical realities” regarding the Kurile Islands (Japan Times, September 22).

Moscow has clearly demonstrated it would not negotiate on the island issue for as long as sanctions on Russia, which were passed by Tokyo and its Western partners in response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, remain in place. In other words, for Japan to receive any of its islands back, let alone regain sovereignty over them, the price it will probably have to pay would be breaking the West’s united front on sanctions. Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, who oversees Russia’s Asian policies, said as much several months ago (Interfax, September 2). But that action, if taken, would place a landmine under Japan’s relations with its most important ally—the United States—and the West in general.

Putin has reportedly warned Abe that if he comes to Japan, the Russian leader must have concrete economic results to show for it (Nikkei Asian Review, September 15). And at the Putin-Abe meetings in September 2015, Putin pointedly referred to declining Russo-Japanese trade (Ajw.asahi.com, September 29). However, he also expressed his confidence that both states have a high potential for economic cooperation on a large number of joint projects (Kyodo, September 29). Similarly Sergei Naryshkin, the speaker of the State Duma (lower house of parliament) and a close aide to Putin, has stated that “Japan’s imposition of sanctions on Russia has become an obstacle to bilateral relations” (Kyodo, September 11).

Logically one should have concluded that no realistic prospect for normalizing Russo-Japanese relations exists. The evidence has been wide and varied, including Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s recent visit to the Kurile Islands; the new Russian plans for a military buildup there (see EDM, October 28); fresh insults directed against Tokyo in the wake of Japanese protests about those actions; the August 2015 Russo-Chinese naval maneuvers, which featured simulated amphibious landings (RT, August 16); as well as President Putin’s prominent presence in Beijing, in September, at the 70th anniversary celebration of the end of World War II, which was marked by a high level of anti-Japanese rhetoric (Xinhua, September 3). Moreover, during August–September 2015, almost every day featured a Japanese or Russian denunciation of the other government’s actions or speeches in regard to the Kurile Islands. Indeed, Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs infuriated Tokyo by saying at one point that the Kurile Islands problem does not exist—i.e., that for Russia, there is no problem (Sputnik News, September 4). Neither was this the first time the Russian foreign ministry or other officials have simply denied the existence of the problem. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, a known provocateur, exemplified such inflammatory rhetoric when, in August, he suggested that the Japanese government would be better off committing collective ritual suicide (hari-kiri) rather than continue to complain about Medvedev’s recent visit to the Kurile islands (Kyodo, August 25).

Even if Japan renounces the sanctions it imposed on Russia, it might still not receive the disputed islands back; and if Tokyo does eventually regain the Kuriles, it could well be in the form of a “gift” from Moscow that does not entail the full transfer of sovereignty to Japan. Such an outcome would thus be a poisoned chalice for the East Asian island country. Accordingly, if Japan were to indeed break the sanctions regime on Russia, it is difficult to see how such a step would translate into Tokyo becoming a broker for an East-West rapprochement. Nor would Japan dropping its sanctions be likely to contribute to geopolitically detaching Russia from China. Importantly, Japan would probably not receive anything other than a symbolic acknowledgement of territories whose symbolic value far outweighs their strategic utility for Tokyo. Rather, Tokyo would have isolated itself from its allies and shown Beijing that it can be pushed around simply for the sake of its “status.” Put another way, by agreeing to abandon sanctions in exchange for Moscow’s partial or conditional acceptance of Tokyo’s claim to the Kuriles, Japan would inadvertently be signaling to other governments in the region that it does not hold fast to the principle of the territorial inviolability of states. That would be an ominous precedent with regard to its claims to the Senkaku Islands, which are under a Chinese challenge. Ultimately then, the belief that Japan can break its alliance ties in order to gain some symbolic victories or economic opportunities represents not realism but wishful thinking. And in regard to Russia, wishful thinking is never enough.