Japan-Russia Relations – 1

Abe’s Visit to Moscow: Can It Become the Beginning of an End?

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit to Moscow on April 28-30, 2013, can generally be considered a “success,” which could be a real starting point for Japan and Russia to reach an agreement that has eluded them since the 1950s. Yet failure to act, as has occurred so many times in the past, could easily shut down this window of opportunity in a manner more conclusive than at any point since, at least, early in the 1990s. I argue below and in the background article, which appears in this month’s Open Forum, that this visit came at a decisive moment for both countries, and that their ability to work together for improved relations now serves as a far-reaching test of how strategic their leaders are in foreign affairs.

Vladimir Putin’s position in dealing with Japan was already made amply clear a year ago on March 1, 2012, four days before he was re-elected as president of Russia. In an interview to the representatives of G-8 media, including Wakamiya Yoshibumi of Asahi Shimbun, Putin stated that when re-elected he wanted to drastically improve relations with Japan through substantially strengthening economic relations and through resolving the territorial issue based on the principle of a “draw” (hikiwake). Given his desire to create a strong Russia, economically and militarily, where China is rising in its backdrop, Putin’s resolve to break the ice with Japan is strategic and understandable, sending a signal to Japan’s leaders that the time is ripe to take action.

Abe Shinzo’s positive echo in responding once he took office as prime minister to Putin’s urging is also strategic and intelligible. Japan’s surrounding international environment is going through gigantic change never foreseen in the 68 years since the end of the Second World War. The rise of China, embodied in the form of a military threat to the Senkaku (to Chinese the Diaoyu) Islands, is becoming imprinted in the consciousness of the Japanese public. National policy is geared as quickly as possible to engender a new Japan, able to cope with the new situation but still fundamentally pacifist. In this time of dramatic change, on the one hand, Japan’s China policy based on deterrence and dialogue, has become critical, but on the other hand, improving and strengthening relations with surrounding countries is also becoming Japan’s compelling strategic objective.

The United States is Japan’s first priority, but it does not suffice. Developing closer ties with Asian neighbors has been a continuous goal from the postwar era, and its priority keeps growing. The natural choice in the face of China’s uncertain intentions is to put Japan’s two closest neighbors—Russia and South Korea—next in priority, followed by ASEAN and other Eurasian and Asia-Pacific countries. To Japanese strategic thinkers, there is growing interest in Russia as a partner in cooperation, particularly in a situation where several regrettable policy mistakes are hampering Japan’s relations with South Korea. This is the background to the Abe visit to Moscow, which was widely understood as aimed at a breakthrough against the background of a complex regional environment.

From an economic point of view, the relatively unexplored Russian market, due to caution by the business community and a frozen political relationship, now looms as a magnet for greater investment. It is said that oversupply in the world natural-gas market causing Russia to look harder for consumers and a spike in Japan’s demand for natural gas after its nuclear catastrophe on March 11, 2011, create a “perfect symbiosis” for energy trade.

The timing of this visit cannot but be considered essential. Already one year has passed since Putin’s first statement for substantial improvement of the relationship. He needs a swift success given the complex domestic situation, and if Japan fails to move swiftly, as was the case in prior years, there would surely be no reason for him to wait.

The documents adopted and the decisions taken at Abe’s visit to Moscow gave an impetus to negotiations. The agreement to establish a 2+2 mechanism of consultations between the two foreign ministers and two defense ministers even surprised defense foreign policy specialists: only the United States, as early as from 1990, and Australia, as of June 2007 under Abe’s first cabinet, have been given that status in Japan. A powerful business group of around 50 people, including top economic leaders from the Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC), Sumitomo, Toshiba, and Japan Agriculture Cooperation Group accompanied the prime minister. A new platform, devised by JBIC, the Russian External Economic Bank (VEB), and the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF) was created to encourage Japanese investment. According to Russian sources, investment projects such as smart city, radioactive medicine, agriculture, and transportation seem promising, awaiting the first joint investment project to be realized by the end of the year. The communique did not fail to mention that, based on the agreed documents in the 2003 Action Plan, “the two leaders agreed to instruct their respective foreign ministries to expedite the negotiations to devise a mutually agreeable solution to resolve the issue of a peace treaty and to report to the two leaders.”

In addition, an accidental question at the very end of the press conference by the two leaders revealed an important message on the part of Putin in dealing with Japan. A Japanese correspondent asked the two leaders how each evaluated the negative impact to the territorial negotiations of Russian investment in the four islands. Obviously irritated by this “provocative” question, Putin started off saying that the correspondent should report the person who gave him the paper which he read in raising this question, then conveyed his message that if one wants to behave harshly and provocatively he has every means with which to reciprocate, “but we did not gather here to discuss it today. Instead, we gathered to renew peace treaty negotiations and find ways to solve this problem (quoting from his web-site).”

Putin’s response gave an impression of personal determination to do something about the difficult issue. Media reports in Japan were regrettably mute, but experts on Russian affairs conveyed to the author a very positive impression on the part of the president. There is a basis to conclude that the meeting left Putin with sufficient hope to continue negotiations with some impetus and forged a personal bond between the two leaders to jointly tackle the difficult issue that has separated the two sides for such a long time.

The essential question emerges: would Japan and Russia succeed in making a real breakthrough? In this series of commentaries, I argue that the answer is “yes,” provided that the two governments are able to act courageously in broadening and deepening the overall scope of the relationship and pay due attention to the following three aspects of the peace treaty negotiations.

First, particularly at the foreign ministry level, the two sides have to be creative. Putin has already given a positive definition of a “mutually agreeable solution,” namely a “draw,” “the negotiations shall be done not to win but not to lose.” What is the solution on the basis of which neither side concludes that it has lost? A one-sided drastic solution has to be excluded. The long-time image of “four-islands in a bunch” in Japan, namely to secure the sovereignty of the four islands simultaneously, means a total loss for Russia. The 1956 Joint Declaration to settle this issue with the two smaller islands, about which Putin spoke eloquently in March 2012, is a courageous position to set before the Japanese side that deserves full respect.

But the political reality in Japan dictates that if Russia takes the position of “Habomai and Shikotan islands only” as its maximum concession, Abe would not be able to say to Japan’s domestic audience that this solution does not make Japan a loser. He would not be able to respond to the question of why Japan should accept the same proposal it had rejected in 1956. Thus, it would be up to the negotiators to find a format acceptable to both, determining the missing link of “alpha” related to Kunashiri and Etorofu, the two larger islands. In this quest for the missing link, it is essential that the two sides do not take the position of adversaries negotiating a zero-sum game. They need to sit down together, brainstorming on a solution that does not make either a loser.

Second, the negotiations have entered an extremely delicate phase. The Japanese side should be aware, in particular, that any leakage to the press about their contents and the input of top leaders, foreign ministers, and top diplomats should be categorically closed. If Abe cannot find a way to control whoever is in a position to know the gist of the negotiations, and overcome Japan’s notorious reputation of not being able to preserve confidentiality, the negotiations can hardly be productive.

Third, there is the question of timing. There is already emerging reports from both sides that since this is a difficult issue that could not be resolved in 68 years after the end of the Second World War, the two sides should cautiously advance the negotiations without precipitating. In a way there is an important wisdom in it. But that cautiousness in no way should allow the two sides not to exert maximum efforts to detect a mutually acceptable solution. Precisely because of the sensitivity involved, negotiators have to act thoughtfully but swiftly. Judging all situations into account on both sides, the time left for negotiators would probably be confined to a year or two. Should they fail to reach a mutually acceptable solution within this period, both countries should be aware that for the foreseeable future, a better opportunity to resolve this issue would not arrive.


Iwashita Akihiro

Ambassador Togo Kazuhiko was undoubtedly an outstanding, long-serving diplomat, who seriously managed the Northern Territories issue with the Soviet Union/Russia. Within Japan’s media circles, he has had a significant presence, influencing opinion, including on the territorial issues with Japan’s neighbors. This is a good chance for the world to be introduced to his excellent analysis on the realities of the historical negotiations over the Northern Territories, although it is already well known in Japan. I personally congratulate his success, however, doubts remain.

Togo summarizes the history of the negotiations well, but his analysis seems to tilt in favor of Japan (or, sometimes, of Togo himself). Here are some examples. One, Togo emphasizes the Joint Communique of the Tanaka-Brezhnev meeting of 1973 and mentions that “Brezhnev orally confirmed that this included the four islands issue.” However, we also know that Brezhnev just nodded and repeated “da,” when Tanaka asked about the territorial issue. Is this really a confirmation?

Second, Togo explains the Kozyrev concessionary proposal of 1992 as an agreement to transfer Habomai-Shikotan before the conclusion of a peace treaty. If it were true, it would be big news because the Soviet Union/Russia has never gone beyond the 1956 Joint Declaration. Kunadze, then in charge of negotiations, counters Togo’s explanation. He explains that he had no reason to ignore and revise the 1956 Joint Declaration clause of transferring the two islands after the peace treaty. Togo quotes from the Japanese participant’s minutes, but it is not the official ones and Togo was not on the site then. In addition, Saito Kunihiko, then deputy minister for foreign affairs, totally rejects Togo’s explanation (Honda Ryoichi, Hokkaido shimbun, July 24, 2013. Mr. Honda conducted the first interview with Kunadze on the proposal, as Togo mentioned). Togo should show further documents to verify his explanation.

Third, Togo highlights the significance of the Irkutsk meeting between Mori and Putin in 2001. However, does the statement (not a declaration) really serve as a “foundation for any further sovereignty negotiations over the four islands?” Rather, as far as the statement keeps the base of the 1956 Joint Declaration for further negotiations, it would serve as the foundation for talks not on four but on two islands. Therefore, was not the Irkutsk statement heavily criticized by Japan’s mainstream politicians and bureaucrats of the time? In addition, if the Irkutsk policy line had survived politically within Japan, would the negotiations over Kunashir and Etorofu have moved forward? No proof yet has appeared from Russian sources. Togo has an obligation to reveal more about the probability of this assumption.

In sum, real windows of opportunity were few and far between. To clearly discern an opportunity for merely conducting negotiations from one for achieving a solution is a must. Japan and Russia, I would argue, have never experienced a genuine opportunity for a solution, perhaps except for the Kawana meeting of 1998 when Hashimoto Ryutaro formulated a new conceptual proposal (i.e., not returning islands but demarcating a border between Russia and Japan). After Russia rejected it as a different version of “returning four islands,” the opportunity for finding a solution has been almost dead (unless Japan changes its official position).

Abe and Putin are now opening a window of opportunity, but regretfully only for negotiations. The two leaders merely had a chat, which is only the first step of a long and unforeseeable road. In this context, should Japan cling to its hope of achieving good diplomatic results with Russia?

A different view from the author is available at: http://www.css.ethz.ch/publications/DetailansichtPubDB_EN?rec_id=2618

Konstantin Sarkisov

The territorial dispute between Russia and Japan is an old problem, so old that there should not be any enthusiasm to take it up once again. The prospect of a solution proved many times to be tantalizing if distant, despite desperate attempts. Nevertheless, the stakes for both countries, as well as for East Asia's geopolitics, are so high that new exploration of a path forward must be respected. Particularly, we have to pay respect to Togo Kazuhiko's optimism. He evaluated Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit to Moscow on April 28-30 as significant and successful despite his own diplomatic experience. He should well know how elusive initial "success" can be when it comes to negotiations on the actual terms of a compromise. Togo has confessed that there were many occasions (he told me once there were at least seven) when a chance to solve the longstanding territorial dispute “eluded” both sides. A start that appears promising to those keen on finding a way forward often fails to stimulate serious pursuit of a compromise agreement by those who wield the most power in making final decisions.

What makes him believe that this time it may be more successful? All opportunities have been lost due to a "failure to act," he stressed. In this sense Abe's visit was an "action" in the right direction and everything depends on further "actions." However, over the three months from Abe's visit to Moscow to now, we do not see any significant actions. Of course, the lack of action may be interpreted in different ways. The best is that Putin and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have been waiting for the results of the Upper House elections. They have generally improved Abe's political ability to make bold decisions, but what if Putin's words in March 2012 about "hikiwake" (a draw) were just a show before the Russian presidential elections and he is not ready for anything resembling a "draw"?

Togo is sure that Putin's decision "to break the ice with Japan" is "strategic and understandable." China and a sluggish Russian economy are pushing Putin to compromise with Japan, he assumes. One must agree that both are very powerful incentives, but there is a clear disparity between how these two factors affect Russia and Japan. China getting powerful and assertive is perceived more sensitively in Japan than in Russia. Over the years the same will happen in Russia too, but so far "the Chinese threat" is perceived by Russian politicians as more a theoretical possibility than a reality, while China is still seen by economists as mostly a "business chance."

In Japan concern over China is already urgent. Abe's "rightist turn" and the prospect of a “Japanese” constitution, as well as Abe’s handling of the "comfort women" issue and Yasukuni shrine visits, all enable China to welcome South Korea with a hug. President Park Geun-hye, made her second foreign visit, after the US visit, not to Japan but to China. It was a symbol of drastic changes in geopolitics from the time of her father—former dictator Park Chung-hee, a lieutenant in Japan's elite Kwantung Army during the Second World War known by his Japanese name as Takagi Masao, who normalized relations with Japan and was a staunch anti-communist. Political animosity is having an impact on the economy. A Chinese English-language newspaper published a cartoon with the caption "China and South Korea should aim for free trade agreement without Japan." Togo attributed deteriorated relations with South Korea to "several regrettable policy mistakes," but Abe's political agenda makes a rapprochement between Tokyo and Seoul, not to mention China, problematic.

Logically speaking, it would be a geopolitical nightmare if an impasse with Russia were added to animosity with China and South Korea, and of course North Korea. Fortunately for Japan, Putin does not seem to be eager to play the Chinese or South Korean cards. Criticism of the Osaka mayor's deliberations on the "comfort women" issue was an exception. Under pressure from Beijing and Seoul, Tokyo is sending signals to make a deal, and the Kremlin should respond positively, but there are problems on the Russian side. In comparison with Putin’s earlier tenure as president, there is evident decline in his popularity. Is he powerful enough for such compromising and winning the approval of his lawmakers and society at large?

Putin's relations with America have worsened significantly. Mr. Snowden's case and some others have aroused rumors that Obama may skip a separate summit with Putin in Moscow, while going to the G-20 session in Saint Petersburg and even boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics. Can Japan reach a compromise without American blessing?

As to a compromise itself, Togo is utterly right. Nothing is possible, but a "two plus alpha" formula, however, the road ahead is bumpy. Japanese society seems to be psychologically favorable, but the political elite have to make a breakthrough—to sacrifice the "sacred cow" (the “four-islands in a bunch” formula). Togo's appeal to "two plus alpha" was repeated in a Russian newspaper on July 18 by his unprecedented co-authorship with Ambassador Panov, a Russian partner in diplomatic negotiations. But the Chief Cabinet Secretary Mr. Suga called their position "a private one" and stressed that the policy of Japan remains unchanged (“four-islands in a bunch”). In official circles in Russia, even a "two-islands return" proposal, as Putin apparently supported earlier, is completely muted. The gap is deeper than several years ago.

After his visit to Moscow, Abe stated: "I share the view with President Vladimir Putin that negotiations will never progress or a settlement will never be reached unless we make a decision." A decision has not been made yet. In September, the Russian vice-minister responsible for a "draw" will go to Tokyo. What kind of "decision" will Mr. Morgulov bring in his suitcase, and what kind of proposal will he receive from the Japanese side? Will the incentives for a compromise be strong enough to bring about a long-awaited solution?

In Togo's article one can find also some "technical" prerequisites to success: "to act thoughtfully but swiftly," "to negotiate behind strictly closed doors," "to be inventive in finding a ‘win-win’ solution,” etc. They all are important, but most of all the will and power of the two leaders will be decisive. About that there are more questions than answers.

Gilbert Rozman

On July 18, a day before Topics of the Month was launched, Togo Kazuhiko and Alexander Panov, two former diplomats who sat across the negotiating table from each other, published a joint article in Nezavisimaya gazeta, which on July 19 became the subject of an article in Asahi shimbun. Discussion of Japan-Russia relations has been boosted in both countries after a two and a half month lag following the Abe-Putin summit. By summarizing the article and the follow-up in Japan, we begin the exchange of views that was planned in response to the Togo piece written for Topics of the Month. The timing is perfect for reflecting on back-and-forth commentaries in Japan and Russia. With Abe’s triumph through the LDP success in the Upper House elections on July 21, he is in a stronger position to advance negotiations with Russia, as he indicated he would do.

Togo, who was Director-General of the European Affairs Bureau in 1997-2001, and Panov, who was ambassador to Japan in 1996-2003, jointly proposed a solution that would return to Japan the Habomai and Shikotan islands and make a special area of the Etorofu and Kunashiri islands. To facilitate negotiations, the two recommended not rushing to get results, opening an unofficial negotiating channel to prepare the way, and proceeding in stages. One step would be to negotiate the return of the two islands, setting the timing and conditions for it. Another would be to agree to give special legal status to the two biggest islands at a greater distance from Hokkaido, allowing for joint economic activities prior to settling their legal status.

The two appraised the Abe-Putin summit favorably, taking seriously the two leaders’ assessment that good preconditions exist for forging a strategic partnership. The fact that the leaders agreed that actively developing bilateral ties in all dimensions will facilitate negotiations to conclude a peace treaty sets the direction ahead, they note in explaining that long and tense talks can be expected, which can progress best if kept confidential, as an atmosphere of improved relations would exert a positive effect, while averting the danger of distortions that could arouse public opinion. In this process, they propose spreading the word about two obvious facts: 1) the two countries have no serious contradictions in their national interests now or in the foreseeable future; and 2) removing the last obstacle on the territorial question holds promise for building relations of a completely new type between two “eternal neighbors.” With high-level talks between the two foreign ministries to begin in a month, the Togo-Panov article kick-started what had been a slow follow-up to the Abe-Putin summit, while offering a blueprint for how to proceed and what sort of compromise might become the subject of serious negotiations.