Japan-Russia Relations – 5

Japan-Russia relations in November saw a certain degree of activation. At the October 7 meeting between Abe and Putin in Bali, an agreement was reached to hold the “2+2” meetings in November. They did take place on November 2 in Tokyo, and as the rejoinder by the Editorial Staff to my previous “Topics of the Month” showed, they attracted considerable attention internationally.

The Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defense published a Fact Sheet on the agreements that were achieved.1 The list is long and covers some areas where defense personnel are going to implement concrete forms of cooperation. The first area is “Dealing with Terrorism and Piracy,” and it includes joint exercises between the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) and Russian Navy for counter-terrorism and anti-piracy, including joint exercises in the Bay of Aden for anti-piracy activities. The second area is “Defense Exchanges.” At sea, a new consultative mechanism was established between commanding officers of the MSDF and Russian Navy; on land, regular exchanges will involve observers of military exercises as well as other exchanges between units; and on air, a new mechanism of expeditious the dispatch of air self-defense cargo planes into Russian territory, for example, in case of disaster relief, will be examined,. The third area of “Consultations and Exchange of Views” includes new types of cooperation, such as in cybersecurity and PKO activities.

The establishment of the “2+2” meetings during Abe’s visit to Moscow in April was a surprise to many, including myself. From the point of view of Japan’s international standing as a country based on democratic values and an ally of the United States, it is natural to start these meetings with the United States, followed by Australia, because the obvious choice of South Korea is hampered by history issues. But few expected that Japan would hold such meetings with Russia, which stations troops on the Northern Territories (South Kuriles, to the Russians) and occasionally causes Japan to scramble Air Self-Defense planes against its approaching fighters. This first round of “2+2” has shown that the meeting is not just some public relations exercise to send a message in the era of China’s rise, but it has clear operational significance. This means that both leaderships—foreign policy and defense officials of the two countries—share recognition that concrete implementation of defense cooperation is in the real interest of both states.

On the substance of the exchanges, it is natural that the Japanese side spent time on Japan’s recently declared policy of “active pacifism,” on changes in the interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution, and on the general security situation which Japan is facing. It is also natural that Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu expressed concern over the missile defense system that Japan and the United States are pursuing.2 Nothing suggests that Russia and Japan are agreed on these issues, but, all the more so, it is important that top defense and foreign policy officials meet regularly and keep holding an exchange of views. As for the China angle, Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio rightly emphasized at the press conference that the “2+2” cooperation is not aimed at a third party. Some newspapers continue to emphasize that, in reality, the meeting was aimed against China, but they had to acknowledge that the “Russians were nervous and intentionally avoided touching on China.” Kishida’s statement was all the more valuable in light of the inclination to see an anti-China aspect in this “2+2.”3 Such defense cooperation, of course, helps to strengthen the diplomatic position of both countries in the age of a rising China and a possible China-US G-2, but taking the issue further than that is in the interest of neither Japan nor Russia.

Russian foreign policy again caught the attention of Tokyo when Putin visited South Korea, meeting with President Park Geun-hye on November 13. The most significant form of cooperation that the two sides achieved was probably to allow South Korean companies to participate in several economic activities that Russia is pursuing along its North Korean border. It appears to mean the relaxation of South Korean sanctions against North Korea. But the focus of Japanese media was on one sentence in the Joint Communique, “Both leaders expressed concern that, recently, words and actions which go against the currents of history are becoming an obstacle to realizing strong cooperation in Northeast Asia.” Most Japanese media recognized that while this “concern” is obviously directed against Japan, it is abundantly clear that it was included at the insistence of the Korean side. The wording was not taken as Russia’s intent to side with South Korea and China in bashing Japan on history issues, but rather as one more link in a chain of foreign policy by Park to encircle Japan. She has proceeded in this fashion in summits with the United States, China, and now Russia to put pressure on Japan to acknowledge the sins it committed during the colonial period. In a rejoinder for Topics of the Month: ROK-Japan alliance, I already explained that this unilateral, self-righteous rebuke against Japan is not drawing sympathy in Japan, even among the most Korea–friendly opinion leaders. The wording about this “concern” does not seem to have resulted in a negative reaction against Putin or Russia.

On the contrary, the immediate response among some shrewd observers was that the late arrival of Putin to the summit meeting with Park was a sign of displeasure against her insistence on dragging the history issue into Korea-Russia relations. According to news coverage in Korea and Japan, Putin was due to meet Park at 1:00 PM , but he arrived half an hour late, because on his way to Seigadai where the meeting was to take place, he saw from the window of his car children wearing the uniform of Sambo, a traditional Russian martial art. Putin stopped his motorcade, got out of the car and greeted these children, although it caused him to be late. Sato Masaru, a renowned novelist who is considered to be a specialist on Russia, immediately wrote, “the language of concern included in the Joint Communique against the historical obstacle must have been included at Korean insistence. I assume that Russia feared that not including it may run the risk of the summit breaking down, and in order to avoid a deterioration in its relationship with South Korea it accepted the language. But to show, in a visible manner, that “I have a strong sense of dissatisfaction at the process of formulating this communiqué” Putin took this course of action. The forceful way South Korea approached this issue touched a nerve in President Putin.”4

Sato’s interpretation may not be the only one. Already on May 23, 2013, when faced with Osaka Mayor Hashimoto Toru’s statement on comfort women, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich responded that Hashimoto’s statement “was an insult to those who fought against Japanese militarism and efforts by those who want to enforce a different version of the history of World War II accepted by the world are continuing.”5 Handling the historical memory issue is a delicate matter for Japan, but at this point in time, it is worth noting that public opinion is relatively favorable to Russia in Japan and not likely to “be provoked” by this joint statement.

These recent developments clearly do not mean that Japan and Russia have finally reached the right track to tackle the “most difficult issue,” as it has repeatedly been called in recent years. As the editorial staff has written in the rejoinder to my October 18 statement, the “2+2” meeting has set a schedule for dialogue. According to news that is circulating in Tokyo, the first meeting will take place at the vice-minister level. Sugiyama and Margurov, the officials involved, had an informal meeting on November 2 in Tokyo, but media reports conclude there was no progress. The second meeting may take place in Sochi during the Winter Olympics from February 7-23. Nothing official has been announced, but there is media speculation that Abe will go to Sochi, accepting Putin’s invitation. The third round of meetings should take place in the spring between the two foreign ministers.

These indications of meetings ahead are promising, but they do not even hint that substantive ideas have started to be exchanged, back and forth, between the two sides to find a hikiwake solution. The difficulty in analyzing the present situation is that if real talks were to begin, the contents would have to be closely guarded among a small number of negotiators and not disclosed to the outside. That would be hopeful, but all inside information to date indicates that the state of negotiations is truly difficult at the vice-ministerial level, a worrisome situation. The Japanese team at the top officials’ level needs to work hard to convince its Russian counterparts of the prospects ahead and to establish an atmosphere conducive to a hikiwake solution and actually negotiate it.

From that perspective, a change of personnel in the Abe admiration is drawing attention. A new law is being discussed in the autumn Diet session, and most likely by the end of the year the new structure of a National Security Office (NSC) is going to be established. It is said that Yachi Shotaro, former vice-minister for foreign affairs and now special advisor to the prime minister, is going to be appointed its first director. While in the vice-minister’s position, Yachi was known to have flexible ideas for resolving the territorial issue. When Aso Taro as foreign minister openly sent a signal of support for the idea of “splitting the area into two” in December 2006, it was formulated under Abe as prime minister and with Yachi serving as vice-minister. It is very difficult to imagine that Aso’s statement was made without full recognition and support by both of them. Reportedly, Yachi had established trustworthy relations with Sergei Narushkin, who was then the head of the presidential office and now serves as chairman of the State Duma. If Yachi, indeed, heads Japan’s NSC, expectations would rise that his relations with Nikolai Patrushev, his official counterpart as secretary of the Security Council of Russia, or even Sergey Ivanov, the current head of the presidential office, would succeed in establishing a second working level channel which would supplement, or even replace, the present channel through the foreign ministries.

1. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, November 17, 2013, http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/files/000018648.pdf.

2. Sankei shimbun, November 2, 2013.

3. Sankei shimbun, November 3, 2013.

4. SANKEI EXPRESS, November 16, 2013.

5. Hokkaido shimbun, May 25, 2013.



Gilbert Rozman

As this six-month exchange draws to a close, we are left with the basic question: Are Abe Shinzo and Vladimir Putin going to reach an agreement on the territorial dispute and full normalization of relations? If they do so, four factors are likely to be paramount. First, the breakthrough would be a feather in the cap of two strong leaders eager to leave a mark on history, as both cultivate an image of foreign policy activism unseen in their countries since the 1980s. They both have to want this enough to overcome inertia below. Second, regardless of what is said, both sides assume that the China factor is important, raising the urgency of a deal as China ups the pressure on Japan and even on Russia. This fall, even more than before, China’s assertiveness casts a dark shadow on the region. Third, this is a test of whether either country is serious about diplomatic diversification, seen in Russia as multipolarity in an increasingly bipolar world and in Japan as Asian diplomacy to complement a strengthened US alliance. Without this deal Russia’s claims to be other than a junior partner of China do not ring true, and Japan’s “reentry into Asia” is hollow. Finally, it is a test of promises to be realizing a new development strategy with energy a major component, the Russian Far East given unprecedented priority by Russia, and Abe serious about breaking through constraints on Japan’s model left in place over decades.

The odds against a breakthrough in 2014 remain high for no less compelling reasons. One is, strategically, the two sides do not actually gain a lot from this. Japan is drawing closer to the United States, and Russia is more seriously challenging the United States and the West and remains hesitant to distance itself from China on security matters. A deal would be nice, but it does not have much strategic urgency. Two, whereas Putin knew that he was dealing from weakness in cutting a territorial compromise with China in 2004, he is not inclined to think similarly about Japan and may well expect “hikiwake” to mean two small islands to Japan with little indication of any further compromise. This offer has been made before and would prove hard for Abe to accept. Third, Russia’s approach to energy development may be outdated by the shale revolution, and its program for the development of the Russian Far East now faces the added burden of the brute pressure it put on Ukraine when that country was nearing a partnership deal with the EU. Given the earlier record of untrustworthy economic agreements, Russia is not gaining credibility. At the end of the list, we should add that resurgent nationalism in both countries is not ideal for an agreement that defies decades of nationalist claims.

Much depends on Putin and Abe throwing their full weight behind it and the reasoning they have with regard to China and the development of the Russian Far East. Given the hesitancy of Putin to offend China openly and his lack of seriousness to date to pursue reforms truly favorable to the Russian Far East, he is probably the bigger stumbling block and the one more optimistic that he does not need to compromise much.