Japanese-Russian ties: Is Tokyo bound to be disappointed?

Deutsche Welle
7 Min Read

Japan and Russia are pushing ahead with new plans to develop infrastructure and industry in the Russian Far East, but analysts believe that Tokyo’s hopes for the return of disputed islands off Hokkaido will be dashed.
In recent weeks, government ministers from Japan and Russia have discussed a number of economic cooperation projects that both sides claim will advance their bilateral relationship and improve two-way trade and investment, while there are even hopes that the two sides' new-found friendship will permit them to sign a peace treaty that would formally end their World War II hostilities.

More than 70 years after Japan's unconditional surrender, the two governments still have no permanent peace treaty due to a dispute over the sovereignty of the South Kuril Islands, a chain of desolate islands off northern Japan that were seized by Soviet forces in August 1945.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is mounting a serious diplomatic initiative to have the islands returned to Japanese sovereignty and is apparently hoping that the offer of friendship, technology and economic assistance might be sufficient to convince President Vladimir Putin to do just that.

The Russian leader is scheduled to visit Japan for summit talks with his Japanese counterpart in December, during which the peace treaty and sovereignty issues will inevitably come up.

Falling short

Analysts here believe, however, that anything Putin offers will fall well short of Japanese expectations.

"To my mind, Russia is leading Japan on," said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at the Japan campus of Temple University. "Putin will not cede those islands, but Moscow is dangling the possibility of revising the proposal that was discussed between the two governments in 1956 to return two of the islands, and that has raised Japan's hopes," he told DW.

"But I do not believe Putin has any intentions to go forward on either option."

Japan has thus far rejected the 1956 discussions because it would mean giving up its claim to larger islands that are part of the archipelago that stretches north towards the Russian island of Sakhalin. And it would be difficult for Abe to go back on that position, but he is clearly still trying to find a way to talk Putin around on the issue, not least because securing the return of the islands would send his popularity through the roof.

'Quixotic pursuit'

"Abe has met Putin more than any other foreign leader since he has been in office as part of his quixotic pursuit of the islands, and the Japanese side is watching very carefully to see what Russia wants and needs for the development of its Far East region," Kingston said.

Earlier this month, the energy and economy ministers of the two nations agreed to progress with dozens of specific projects, including the joint development of oil and gas fields in the Russian Far Eats, the generation of wind power and cooperation in the decommissioning of Japan's crippled Fuskushima nuclear plant.

Another project calls for the laying of a submarine cable more than 50 kilometers across the Soya Strait from Hokkaido to Sakhalin to deliver energy from Russian thermal power plants. The cost of the project has been estimated at more than $5.7 billion.

Japan is also calling on domestic companies in an array of other sectors – including medical technology and tourism – to look into the possibility of Russian projects, although there has reportedly been a degree of push-back from firms concerned about the unpredictable investment environment in Russia.

"Obviously, Russia does not want to rely too heavily on China while Japan does also not want Russia to be drawn into China's sphere of influence, so in that respect this sort of economic cooperation and development is of mutual strategic interest," said Jun Okumura, a visiting scholar at the Meiji Institute for Global Affairs.

"And while this is undoubtedly linked to the question of the sovereignty of the northern isles, it is also more broadly part of the geopolitical game in the region," he added.

Overtures to Moscow

And for that reason, Washington has permitted Tokyo to make overtures to Moscow at a time when ties between Russia and both the US and Europe are strained over the issues of Syria, Ukraine and the Crimea.

The Russians appear to see the situation slightly differently, however, with Valentina Matvienko, the head of the upper chamber of Russia's parliament, using a visit to the Japanese city of Nagasaki on November 4 to aim a barb at Washington.

Matvieko told her Japanese hosts that it was "uttely unnecessary" to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. "I think the US just wanted to experiment."

Kingston laughs and says, "The Russians relish any opportunity to put a wedge between Japan and the US, and there will be more to come."

And Okumura is equally pessimistic about Abe's chances of pulling off the return of the islands.

"The furthest that the Russians may be willing to go would be to give back the two uninhabited islands, sign the peace treaty and continue listening to Japan, to give the impression that the two other islands are still on the table," he said. "But, in reality, they won't go that far."

This leaves Abe in a difficult position. There may be several reasons for forging a better relationship with Moscow, but the islands have been his personal priority. Will he be able to convince the Japanese public that he achieved the best possible outcome and will they still consider that it falls short of what has been sought since 1945?

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