Uyama Tomohiko, a professor at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center at Hokkaido University, analyzes the positions and outcomes of the recent [December 2016] Japan-Russia Leaders’ Summit.
At the Japan-Russia Leaders’ Summit on 15 and 16 December last year  there were some results in terms of economic cooperation and human exchange, but the summit finished without progress on Japan’s main concern; namely, territorial negotiations. Although Putin showed that he places a certain amount of importance on the overall Japan-Russian relationship, some of his statements on the Northern Territories issue were unyielding enough to have been from the Cold War. It is true that the press statement noted how the start of discussions on joint economic activities on the four northern islands was an important step towards signing a peace treaty; nevertheless, there were large differences in the two leaders’ respective positions. On one side, Prime Minister Abe said that economic activities would take place under a “special system” and would not negate Japan’s assertion of sovereignty over the four islands. On the other side, Russia said that the joint economic activities would take place under its own laws, displaying a stance that sought to separate the peace treaty and Northern Territories issues. Apart from anything else, Japan and Russia are already well past the stage of little interaction and suspicion of each other through ignorance: putting the Northern Territories issue to one side, the two countries have built up normal relations. So it is hard to envisage a sequence of events in which joint economic activities on the four islands and a general deepening of economic interaction between the two countries would lead to greatly increased trust and the return of the territories.
Some have pointed to the poor timing of the summit. Due to the election of Donald Trump in the recent US presidential election and the accompanying changes in the global situation, Russia’s interest in Japan is relatively low. Also, the summit took place at a time when much attention was being directed towards the situation in Syria. Since Russia has effective control over the four northern islands, Russia needs to offer some compromise in order for territorial negotiations to have meaning for Japan. In recent years, however, the Russian leadership has made no statement that shows any sign whatsoever of preparing to compromise. Just before his reelection as Russian President in March 2012, Putin answered a question from a Japanese newspaper regarding the Northern Territories issue by saying that he was aiming for “a draw.” This led to considerable expectations on the Japanese side, but it wasn’t made clear what “a draw” meant. Since 2014, Russia’s confrontation with Europe and the United States over Ukraine has deepened and its focus on the sovereignty of its land and territories has got stronger. Despite that, the Abe administration has attempted to read hopeful signs into each and every statement from Putin and the Russian leadership, while creating the impression at home of great progress in the territorial negotiations. In addition, based on the 2001 Japan-Russia Irkutsk statement (confirming the validity of the 1956 Japan-USSR joint statement covering the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan after the conclusion of a peace treaty), some politicians have continued to pursue the return of those two islands and simultaneously negotiate on the other two islands. Yet, despite their failure to produce results due to the resignation from their posts at that time, they have continued to tell Prime Minister Abe and the Japanese people that Putin will at least agree to return two islands. They have forgotten how both the nature of the Putin administration and the world situation have changed completely over these fifteen years.
Of course it is inevitable that territorial negotiations based on this kind of one-sided wishful thinking from Japan won’t make progress. And in the background there is an even more profound issue; namely, the gap between the perceptions Japan and Russia have of each other.
From the Japanese perspective, Russia may be a great nation in terms of land area, but its population is not very different to Japan and its GDP is about one third of Japan’s. Japan has a certain amount of experience using aid and economic cooperation to achieve diplomatic results in developing countries. The Russian Far East is geographically close to Japan, which strongly believes that it can utilize the attraction of its economic power and technology through development. These last few years, Russia has suffered due to the fall in oil prices and Western economic sanctions. Thus, there is an evident tendency to think that if Japan offers economic help to Russia, it will be grateful. Because Putin enjoys judo, and because it is well known how traditional Japanese culture and animation are popular with Russian people, there is a perception of Russia as a Japanophile country. The image of Russian military threat, as in the USSR era, is fading away. And while Russia’s aggressive actions in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria seem close to those in Europe, for most Japanese people those events are very far away. On the other hand, since many politicians and analysts conceive the rise of China a threat to both Japan and Russia, they think that the two countries should work together to contain China. (Needless to say there are others who do not agree with this.)
Meanwhile, from the Russian perspective, Japan is a small country with a land area about one fiftieth of its own. In recent years Russia has begun to see itself as a resurgent great power and once again tends to look down on small nations. Confidence in Japanese technology is high, but there is also a strong tendency to view Japan as an economically stagnant nation. In any case, Russian diplomacy revolves around power politics. As we can see from the political confrontation between Russia and Western nations (with whom Russia has strong economic links), there’s little sense that pushing on with economic and cultural cooperation might lead to closer political links. Although the Russian government and regional authorities recognize that development of the Far East is necessary, and therefore that cooperation with Japan is advantageous, we can hardly say that the issue is of much interest to the political elite or the Russian electorate. It is also true that China and South Korea are assisting with development in the Russian Far East.
While Japan itself does not represent a military threat to Russia, it is regarded as an ally of Russia’s adversary, the United States. At the post-summit press conference, Putin particularly stressed that the Japan-US security treaty concerned Russia with regard to the territorial issue. Some have predicted that US-Russia relations may improve following the election of Trump as president, something that Putin had hoped for. It is also possible, however, that anti-Russian hawks within the United States may rally, and there is also a chance that Trump himself may pursue a military course that puts him in conflict with Russia. As long as Russia’s aim remains the weakening of the United States’ global influence, its negative stance on the Japan-US security treaty will not change. At the same time, Russia is placing great importance on its relationship with China, both as an ally in its conflict with Europe and the United States and on account of the profits it receives from its neighbor’s economic growth. Talk of Russia partnering with Japan to contain China is just lip service aimed at the Japanese people by some academics and diplomats.
In this way, there is a perception gap in which both Russia and Japan overestimate their own strength and underestimate the strength of the other. This lay behind Japan’s failure and the lack of progress on the territorial negotiations at the recent leaders’ summit. But was this really a comprehensive victory for Russia? It is certainly true that Russia has managed to gain promises on large-scale economic cooperation without shifting its position on the territories issue. But this situation (which is actually the result of Japan’s one-sided efforts) brings an accompanying risk that the Japanese people will deepen their mistrust of a “cunning” Russia.
Even more seriously, behind Russia’s hard stance towards Japan in recent years is the issue of the nation’s hostility towards Europe and the United States. The Putin administration has outwitted Europe and the United States on Ukraine and Syria, and by supporting the rise of anti-liberal forces in the countries of Europe and the United States has displayed some clever tactics. Yet, it has shown no clear vision of what kind of world order it could create should Europe and the United States be weakened. Russia has found no answer to the question of whether it is prepared to end up a junior partner to a strengthening China. It is unclear what kind of role Russia might play in the international relations of Northeast Asia, which feature a number of other difficult issues besides the Northern Territories.
We can point to one thing, of sorts, that we have learned from the summit. In a series of statements from Putin and others, we can see that a strong message was sent to Japan: that the Northern Territories problem is tied more closely to security guarantees than economic issues. Many people in Japan have actively advocated the view that Japan should partner with Russia to constrain the Chinese threat. Yet, not only does the Russian side not think in that way, the US-Japan Security Treaty is at the center of Japan’s China strategy.
The dilemma is that Russia opposes the US-Japan Security Treaty. For as long as that is so, it is inevitable that attempts to partner with Russia will only come to a dead-end. To put that another way, Russia and Japan’s enmity and rivalry towards a third country (the United States and China, respectively) is pushing Japan-Russia relations off track. Both countries must get past narrow-minded ideas based on such rivalry, then think carefully about the kind of constructive role they can play in a future world order.
Even if it is difficult to achieve quickly, Japan, Russia, China, South Korea, and the United States should all acknowledge their different national interests. Creating a multi-national regime that relaxes tensions and checks conflict in Northeast Asia could build a relationship of trust between Japan and Russia (based on security guarantees), and even create an environment conducive to the solution of the Northern Territories issue.
Uyama Tomohiko is a professor at the Slavic-Eurasian Research Center at Hokkaido University.
“Very Little Time Left”
Following are comments made by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo following the first day of his summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, held in the prime minister’s hometown of Nagato City in Yamaguchi Prefecture, 15 December 2016.
I had an approximately three-hour-long meeting with President Putin.
The location was my hometown, and with the warm welcome extended by the local people, the meeting took place in a very positive atmosphere.
After this, we will hold further meetings mainly about our economic relations. During the meeting with a small number of participants, we discussed bilateral and global issues, the importance of Russia playing a constructive role in addressing those global issues, and that Japan and Russia working together can resolve various issues.
The one-on-one meeting between President Putin and me lasted for about 95 minutes. Our discussion focused mainly on the peace treaty issue.
Based on our previous discussions held in Sochi, Vladivostok, and Lima, today, we were able to hold frank and very in-depth discussions on the issue of former island residents freely visiting their old hometowns, joint economic activities under a special arrangement between Japan and Russia on the four islands of the Northern Territories, and the peace treaty issue. In the private meeting, I gave President Putin letters that I received from the former islanders when I met them a few days ago. President Putin read a letter, which was written in Russian, on the spot. With the average age of the former islanders being 81 years old, I approached the discussion taking firmly to heart the former islanders’ feeling that there is very little time left.
Discussions will further continue later today, and the venue will be moved to Tokyo tomorrow for further discussions. We will report the results of our meetings during a press conference tomorrow with both of us present.”