Japan’s Russia Policy: Looking Back on 2016 and Ahead to 2017

Building closer relations with Russia was undoubtedly one of the main priorities of Japanese foreign policy in 2016. This was made clear by Prime Minister Abe in his New Year press conference that year when he emphasized the importance of holding regular summits with Russia, thereby indicating that he would proceed with plans for the Russian leader to visit Japan in 2016. He reiterated the point a few days later, telling both the Nikkei and Financial Times, “I believe appropriate dialogue with Russia, appropriate dialogue with president Putin is very important.”1 This was a bold step because Russia remained under G7 sanctions and the United States wished to keep the country diplomatically isolated. The move was made even more sensitive by the fact that Japan had just assumed the chairmanship of the G7.

Reaffirmed in 2016, the goal of developing better ties with Russia has long been favored by Abe. His main motivation is to achieve a resolution to the countries’ territorial dispute over the four islands known as the Northern Territories in Japanese and the Southern Kurils in Russian, thereby enabling the signing of a peace treaty. Abe spoke of this ambition on the day of the December 2012 election that returned him to power. Just a few months later, in April 2013, he undertook an official visit to Moscow, the first by a Japanese leader in over ten years. These efforts led to a November 2013 “two-plus-two” meeting between the countries’ foreign and defense ministers, a format usually reserved for close partners. Additionally, in February 2014, Abe went against the advice of Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and travelled to Russia for the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympics. Other G7 leaders stayed away from the event in opposition to Russia’s human rights record.

The period of December 2012 to February 2014 was, therefore, characterized by a positive dynamic in bilateral relations, which was expected to culminate in a return visit by President Putin to Japan towards the end of that year. These plans, however, had to be postponed in March 2014 due to the escalation of the Ukraine crisis and Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This led to Russia’s expulsion from the G8, as well as the introduction of stringent economic sanctions by the United States and the European Union. Although clearly feeling less strongly about the issue than its Western counterparts, the Japanese government made a show of solidarity by suspending discussions with Russia and introducing its own, largely symbolic sanctions.

Despite finding it necessary to pause the rapprochement with Russia during 2014 and 2015, Abe remained patient and did not abandon his plans. Instead, he waited until the situation in Ukraine had cooled sufficiently to permit reactivation of the policy. Evidently, the Japanese leader judged that enough time had passed by the start of 2016. After beginning the year with his announcements about the importance of dialogue with Russia, Abe accelerated his efforts. His next major step was to return to Sochi to meet with Putin on May 6. This was again a brave move, not only because it came less than three weeks before Japan hosted the G7 summit in Ise-Shima, but also because President Obama telephoned the Japanese leader on February 9 to directly urge him not to make the visit. While not heeding this advice, Abe did seek to assuage Western concerns by visiting Europe’s G7 capitals on his way to Sochi. During the final stop in London, the United Kingdom government again warned of the dangers of dealing with Putin, but the Japanese prime minister was unwilling to be swayed.

In Sochi, Abe held talks with the Russian leadership, including an intriguing 30-minute session during which Abe spoke with Putin one-on-one. Abe was apparently delighted by the results of this meeting and immediately told the press of a “new approach” to Japan’s relations with Russia. It was not initially clear what this policy actually entailed, beyond a commitment to “build a future-oriented relationship” and to proceed with negotiations “free of any past ideas.” Over the course of months, however, the true features of Abe’s “new approach” gradually became apparent.

Essentially, the “new approach” has two components. The first is an implicit softening of Japan’s demands with regard to the territorial dispute. It had insisted on the return of the four islands in a batch (yonto ikkatsu henkan), or at least to have Russia simultaneously recognize Japanese sovereignty over all of them, but there was no hope of progress if Japan stuck rigidly to this position. Instead, Abe appears to have been convinced of the merits of the “two plus alpha” solution. As explained by Togo Kazuhiko,2 this involves the transfer of the two smaller islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan, as stipulated in the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956. In addition, talks would continue on the status of the larger islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri (Iturup and Kunashir in Russian) with a view to agreeing on a system of special rights for Japan, perhaps even including joint administration. Such an approach enables Japan to maintain its official claim to all of the islands, while tacitly acknowledging the reality that Etorofu and Kunashiri will never fully be returned. “Two plus alpha” also has the merit of seemingly being supported by a majority of Japanese. According to a November 7, 2016 poll by the Mainichi newspaper, 57 percent of respondents favor a flexible approach to the territorial dispute, while only 25 percent resolutely demand the return of all four islands.3

The second part of the “new approach” is to provide Russia with incentives to follow Japan in accepting the need to compromise. Specifically, Abe has strongly promoted economic cooperation, beginning by unveiling an eight-point economic cooperation program in Sochi in May. The intention is to create a positive dynamic in bilateral relations, to build mutual trust, and to demonstrate the value to Russia of closer relations. This also represents a significant departure from earlier policy since previous Japanese governments held back on cooperation with Russia in the hope that reduced levels of trade and investment would induce concessions. Abe’s expectation is evidently that, by frontloading economic cooperation, fresh momentum can be added to peace treaty negotiations.

Having announced the “new approach” in May, the Japanese government spent the next six months urgently seeking to make the policy a reality. This involved Abe continuing to meet Putin at every opportunity, most notably in Vladivostok at the start of September to attend Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum. There, he delivered an extraordinary speech in which he spoke of his dream “to make Vladivostok a gateway linking Eurasia and the Pacific” and called for the Russian leader and him to meet annually in the city. Abe made an emotional appeal to Putin, “Let us occasionally enter the virgin taiga forest, get enveloped in the sunlight filtering through the trees that appeared in Akira Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala, and together consider what kind of relations Japan and Russia must have 20 or 30 years into the future.” These words prompted smirks from the media about Abe’s attempted “bromance.”4

Aside from this rhetoric, the Japanese prime minister took the unprecedented step of naming a special minister for economic cooperation with Russia, the only cabinet position that includes the name of a foreign country. This responsibility was handed to Seko Hiroshige, Japan’s minister for economy, trade, and industry, and one of Abe’s most trusted subordinates. He was tasked with rapidly developing as many concrete economic cooperation projects as possible. This involved providing additional financing via the state-controlled Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). It also entailed placing pressure on Japanese companies to overcome their aversion to Russian risk, especially in the context of Western sanctions, and to invest in the areas specified in Abe’s eight-point cooperation plan.

Results of Putin’s Japan visit

All of these efforts in the second half of 2016 were building towards Putin’s arrival in Japan. Any visit to Japan by the Russian head of state is a major diplomatic event, but on this occasion anticipation was especially high due to the two-year delay in the realization of the trip and Abe’s announcement of the “new approach” in May. In the months prior to the visit, there was, therefore, feverish speculation in the Japanese media that this would be the moment when a breakthrough would be reached in the countries’ territorial dispute.

In advance of the visit, as well as dealing with high public expectations, the Japanese government had to address the concerns of G7 allies. This was done by assuring Western partners that Japan’s pursuit of a peace treaty would not affect its decision to retain sanctions on Russia over Ukraine. In addition, it was stressed to Washington that the visit would have an informal character and would be focused on territorial discussions to be held behind closed doors in Yamaguchi, Abe’s home prefecture. Taking place far from Tokyo, the summit would, therefore, offer few opportunities for Moscow to use the visit to demonstrate the lack of unity in G7 efforts to isolate Russia. Having been given this reassurance, Washington was subsequently displeased to learn that, in addition to the territorial talks in Yamaguchi on December 15, a second day of meetings and public appearances would be held in Tokyo on December 16, with the focus on economic cooperation. Putin gained the symbolic victory of being welcomed in a G7 capital for the first time since the Ukraine crisis, though he was not granted a meeting with the emperor.

The headline achievement of the summit was an agreement to begin discussion of joint economic activities on the disputed islands under a special framework that would not compromise either side’s claims to sovereignty. This is an attempt to get around the problem that, although Russia has long encouraged Japanese investment on the islands, Tokyo has, heretofore, been opposed on the basis that such participation would constitute tacit recognition of Russian legal jurisdiction. The two sides agreed to implement a degree of visa liberalization, with the new rules immediately coming into force at the start of January 2017, making it easier for former Japanese residents to visit ancestors’ graves on the islands. Putin even suggested a broader visa-free travel zone for all residents of Hokkaido and Sakhalin. With regard to security, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that agreement had been reached on resuming the “two-plus-two” meetings between foreign and defense ministers. Meanwhile, 12 intergovernmental agreements and 68 commercial deals were signed at an estimated value of USD 2.5bn. Additionally, JBIC and the Russian Direct Investment Fund agreed to establish a USD 1bn fund to invest in bilateral economic projects. Lastly, it was unveiled that 2018 would be named the year of Russia-Japan cultural exchanges.

How should these results be assessed? Can Putin’s visit be judged a success for Abe’s “new approach”? The prime minister himself was upbeat in his evaluation of the summit, stating in the closing press conference that the agreements reached were “an important step towards concluding the peace treaty” Such claims can be expected from the Japanese leader, but his positive assessment is shared by many leading Japanese experts on Russia.

Togo concluded, “Judging from all the agreements published and [the leaders’] statements, I consider that the visit found a way to narrow the divide between the positions of the two sides in the negotiations to continue from 2017. It was, therefore, a clear success.” Togo also took the view that the summit could potentially have been even more fruitful if it had not been for the unexpected election of the Putin-friendly Donald Trump as US president, “which diminished Abe’s value to Putin in driving a wedge between Japan and the United States.” What is more, Togo alleges that elements of the Japanese bureaucracy and media sought to derail Abe’s “new approach.” He claims that “during the seven months of negotiations several incidents arose when Japanese officials acted in defiance of Abe’s fundamental directions, and that they invariably became causes of dissatisfaction in Russia, leading to disconnects between the two administrations.”5 In Togo’s view, the fact that the December visit succeeded in spite of these obstacles is a sign that further progress can be made in 2017.

In his generally favourable evaluation of the results of the summit, Togo is in good company. Specifically, Hyodo Shinji stated, “it seems likely that Putin’s latest visit to Japan will be viewed as another step taken toward the conclusion of a peace treaty.”6 On the Russian side, Dmitrii Streltsov expressed a similar view, saying “It is also a step towards understanding and brings us closer to the signing a treaty of peace and friendship with Japan.”7

The basis for this optimism by the Japanese leadership and these commentators is the belief that the agreement to discuss joint economic activities on the islands can serve as a stepping stone to the final compromise solution to the territorial dispute. Specifically, it is hoped that joint development under a special legal framework can provide Japan with what would, in effect, be a form of shared administration. This would give Japan something more than the two small islands offered in the 1956 Joint Declaration and would enable Japan to maintain its claim to underlying sovereignty over all four islands. Meanwhile, this solution could also be interpreted as conforming to Putin’s demand that a deal be such that “neither of the parties would feel defeated or a loser.”8

Most explicit in articulating this interpretation of the results of the Yamaguchi summit is Shimotomai Nobuo. Writing for the Valdai Discussion Club, Shimotomai stated boldly that:

“The start of Joint Economic Activities, (or JEA) is de facto a condominium type of solution to the disputed lands. In other words, this is the beginning of a new joint type of governance by two governments on the disputed territories and this is embodied in the “New Approach.” This is the way to the conclusion to the Peace Treaty.”9

It might be assumed that this “new joint type of governance” would apply to Etorofu and Kunashiri, while the smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai would be fully transferred. This would provide Japan with the long-sought “two plus alpha” solution. In fact, however, the special legal framework has been proposed to apply to all four of the islands. No territory would therefore be transferred to Japan in its entirety. This outcome would therefore actually be “zero plus alpha,” albeit with an impressively large “alpha.”

Is the Optimism Justified?

If Russia actually had agreed to conduct joint economic activities on the islands under a special framework and not under Russian law, this really would be a major step forward and the positive comments mentioned above would be fully merited. The reality, however, is that no such agreement was reached during Putin’s visit. Instead, Russia agreed to discuss joint economic activities on the islands. This is something very different since there is absolutely no guarantee that these talks will lead to the outcome described by Shimotomai.

Even with the best will in the world, it would not be straightforward to agree on a mutually satisfactory legal framework that would permit Japanese individuals and companies to operate on the islands without being subject to Russian law. Negotiating such an arrangement would require consideration of all manner of questions. For instance, in which court would be heard a commercial dispute between a Russian and a Japanese company engaged in a joint economic venture on the islands? Additionally, under which legal system would a Japanese citizen who is suspected of a criminal offence be tried? Also, what are the implications for the property rights claimed by Japanese former residents of the islands? Furthermore, would Russia be permitted to continue deploying its military on the islands?

In principle, such difficulties can be resolved, and proponents point to existing examples of condominium. Nikkei has cited Vanuatu as a possible precedent since it was jointly administered by Great Britain and France as the New Hebrides between 1906 and 1980.10 This hardly seems relevant, however, since Vanuatu, in the South Pacific, is of little strategic significance. Shared governance was also made easier by the fact that France and Great Britain are close allies with many shared values. As for Japan and Russia’s own experience of shared possession of Sakhalin from 1855, this did not prove satisfactory for either side and was ended with the transfer of the island to Russia in 1875 in exchange for Japan receiving the rights to the entire Kuril chain.

The demography of the four islands also does not lend itself naturally to condominium. Joint governance is most obviously applicable when there are two communities resident in a territory with loyalties to different nations. However, in the case of the islands, there is currently a Russian population of approximately 17,000, while no Japanese citizens reside there. There is, therefore, the question of whether the existing population would consent to the imposition of a new legal framework. Even if this were only to apply to activities in which Japanese citizens were involved, such a system might be rejected as extraterritoriality.

The idea of joint economic activities on the islands is not new. A similar agreement to discuss joint development was reached in 1998 between Prime Minister Obuchi and President Yeltsin. The discussions, however, never led anywhere due to the difficulty of settling precisely these legal and sovereignty issues. There is no reason to think that it will be easier on this occasion.

These practical obstacles are daunting enough, but an even greater problem is that Russia has no intention of agreeing to anything remotely similar to a system of condominium. This is obvious from the comments of Russian officials. Immediately after the announcement of the plan to discuss joint economic activities, Yurii Ushakov, Putin’s top foreign policy aide, was asked whether these activities would be conducted under Russian law. He responded without hesitation, “Of course, this is the territory of the Russian Federation.”11 Petr Shelakhaev, general director of Russia’s Far East Investment and Export Agency, stated that Japanese companies involved in joint economic projects on the islands would have to pay taxes to Russia, thereby indicating that they would be considered to be operating under Russian jurisdiction.12 It appears that the Russian side does not consider the special framework to mean a neutral legal environment under which Japan could effectively engage in joint administration of the islands. Instead, Russian officials seem to envisage nothing more impressive than a special economic zone in which Japanese investors would be granted certain preferences, but which would remain firmly under Russia’s exclusive control. Such an arrangement represents no real step forward for Japan with regard to resolving the territorial dispute since it involves no concessions from Russia on the question of sovereignty.

In addition to these specific comments about joint economic activities, there have been many other statements over the past several months that demonstrate Russia’s unwillingness to consider major compromise. Just prior to Abe’s arrival in Vladivostok in September, Putin gave an interview to Bloomberg in which he was asked about the possibility of a territorial deal. He responded bluntly, “We don’t trade in territories.”13 The same discouraging message was communicated ahead of Putin’s visit to Japan when he told Japanese journalists, “We believe we have no territorial problems at all. It is only Japan that believes it has territorial problems with Russia.”14 This was no off-the-cuff remark since Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the Russian Federation Council, said the same when she visited Japan at the beginning of November.15 This stance is also reflected in Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept, which was released on November 30, 2016. Whereas the 2013 version committed Russia to continuing dialogue to resolve “unsettled questions” in a mutually beneficial way, this wording was removed from the updated edition. Finally, shortly before Putin’s visit to Yamaguchi, Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov gave an interview to the Russian media in which he insisted “Our position on the peace treaty issue remains unchanged: we proceed from the basis of the absolute necessity that Tokyo recognise the results of World War II, including territorial issues with respect to the Southern Kuril Islands.”16 Far from opening the door to compromise, the Russian side was reasserting its demand that Japan recognize Russian sovereignty over all four islands as a precondition for negotiations.

There have been other indirect signs that the “new approach” is not functioning as intended. In November 2016, Russia deployed the Bastion and Bal coastal missile systems on the islands of Kunashir and Iturup, part of a long-planned modernization of its military capabilities in the Far East. The decision to permit to go ahead just prior to Putin’s visit, rather than postponing it, sends a signal to Japan of the strategic significance that Russia attributes to these islands. What is more, there is another troubling sign for Japan in Russia’s new Foreign Policy Concept. This document provides a list of foreign policy priorities for Russia in the Asia Pacific that places Japan, not only after China and India, but also after Mongolia. This is a demotion since 2013. The message would seem to be that Japan should not assume that Russia considers bilateral relations to be important enough to merit political concessions.

Lastly, Putin’s own actions should temper optimism on the Japanese side. Just prior to the summit, the Russian president caused some embarrassment to the Japanese government by rejecting its offer of another Akita dog to accompany the one he received in 2012. In addition, the Russian leader showed disregard for his hosts’ careful planning by arriving in Yamaguchi almost three hours late. Although this was claimed to have been caused by Putin’s need to discuss the Syrian conflict with President Erdogan of Turkey, the convenient effect was to minimize the amount of time spent in Yamaguchi discussing peace treaty issues, and to hasten the move to Tokyo where the focus was on economic cooperation.

Overall then, it is a considerable feat of wishful thinking to conclude that this summit was a success for Japan. The Abe administration is responsible for inflating expectations; e.g., after his meeting with Putin in Sochi, Abe told reporters, “I have a sense that we are moving toward a breakthrough in the stalled peace treaty negotiations.”17 The leadership also allowed the rumour to spread that a snap election would be called in January 2017 to capitalize on the success of the territorial deal to be struck in December. It is, therefore, not surprising that many in Japan are disappointed by the meager results of the summit. This was reflected in an opinion poll, which found that 54.3 percent of respondents assessed the meeting negatively and only 38.7 percent took a positive view. The same survey also found a 5.9 percent decline in the approval rating of the Abe cabinet.18 There was also disappointment among Japanese former residents of the islands, including one who told reporters that “it feels we have been lifted up, only to be dropped back down with a thud.”19 (Renho, the leader of the Democratic Party, mocked the results of the summit, saying that “far from being a draw [hikiwake], it was actually a decisive defeat [ippon] for Prime Minister Abe.” 20 Such criticism is to be expected from political opponents, but Nikai Toshihiro, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), appeared to acknowledge the failure by telling journalists, “We have to keep in mind that most of the Japanese public are disappointed at the results.”21

Meanwhile, on the Russian side, there is every reason to think that Lavrov is telling the truth when he says that “we have very, very positive impressions of the visit.”22 This is due to satisfaction at the 80 commercial and intergovernmental agreements that promise increased investment in Russia. In addition, the deal on visa liberalization and apparent agreement to restart the “two-plus-two” are particularly pleasing to Russia because they can be presented as a de facto softening of Japanese sanctions because talks about easing visa restrictions, along with the “two-plus-two” meetings, were suspended by Japan after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis.

Japan’s Russia Policy in 2017

Having had time to reflect on the failure to make any meaningful progress in 2016, it might be expected that the Abe administration would abandon or at least deemphasize the “new approach” in 2017. After all, the policy is not cost-free. In addition to being regarded with scepticism by much of the public, Japan’s pursuit of rapprochement with Russia has caused alarm in European capitals about Japan’s reliability as a partner on Ukraine and its apparent lack of concern about Russia’s alleged human rights violations in Syria. This may make it harder for Japan to rally European support for its efforts to stand up to China’s assertive actions in the South and East China seas.

Despite these reasons for discouragement, there is every sign that Japan will persist with the “new approach.” On January 11, Minister Seko was dispatched to Moscow to meet with Igor Shuvalov, first deputy prime minister, as well as Valentina Matvienko. During this visit, it was announced that Abe was expected to visit Russia twice in 2017, most likely in April and September. A few days later, Kishi Nobuo, state minister for foreign affairs and the prime minister’s brother, also travelled to Moscow, meeting with his counterpart, Igor Morgulov. Japan is considering starting flights between Hokkaido and the disputed islands.23 At present, the only direct connection is a special boat that operates during the summer. The next significant event will be the first round of official discussions on joint economic activities. These will take place in Tokyo in March between Morgulov and Akiba Takeo, Japan’s new top negotiator.

Why is it that the Japanese leadership remains so wedded to this policy despite its apparent lack of prospects? The first reason would seem to be Abe himself—an unusually powerful prime minister and already one of the longest-serving in Japanese history. This provides him with considerable latitude to pursue his favored foreign policy agenda, even in the face of opposition from both within and outside of Japan. As to why Abe is fixated on Russia, part of the explanation is to be found in his sense of obligation to his late father, Abe Shintaro, who served as foreign minister from 1982 to 1986 and made it a personal priority to fully normalize relations with the Soviet Union. Indeed, so great was his commitment to this issue that, even after leaving office and falling terminally ill, he summoned the strength to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev during the Soviet leader’s historic visit to Japan in April 1991. Less than one month later, Abe Shintaro died. Abe has often spoken of his desire to complete the work of his father and, while waiting for Putin’s late arrival in Yamaguchi, the prime minister announced on social media that he “used the time to visit the grave and reported to my father who devoted his late career to push for a peace treaty.”24

An additional factor is that signing a peace treaty with Russia fits closely with Abe’s broader mission to set Japan free from the post-war order. Early in his premiership he defined his aim as to “shrug off the husk of the post-war state” and “recover Japan’s independence.”25 This informs the prime minister’s ambitions to revise the Constitution. It also explains Abe’s enthusiasm for a territorial deal and peace treaty with Russia that would finally put an end to one of the main unresolved issues emerging from World War II.

A final feature of the prime minister that helps explain his unyielding pursuit of the “new approach” is Abe’s general foreign policy method, as one of the most internationally active prime ministers that Japan has ever had, visiting no fewer than 92 countries between January 2013 and May 2016. However, this hyperactivity suggests an emphasis on quantity over quality, as if the success of a country’s foreign policy was determined more by volume of activity than by the skill with which a strategy is designed and implemented. In particular, Abe clearly places great emphasis on developing close personal relations with key world leaders via frequent one-on-one meetings. As well as being notable in Japan’s policy towards Russia, these tendencies were clearly on display when Abe rushed to be the first world leader to meet with President-elect Trump on November 17. Although establishing these individual relationships is evidently an important part of foreign policy, there are limits to what can be achieved by means of this approach.

If Abe’s foreign policy does indeed lack strategic sophistication, this may be a reflection of his reported propensity to make foreign policy decisions on the basis of his own judgement and instinct, with little regard for the advice of others. This is thought to be especially the case in relation to Russia, where Abe himself is the lead designer of policy, with assistance from Seko Hiroshige and Yachi Shotaro, director of the National Security Council. Meanwhile, MOFA appears to have been sidelined. This approach could contribute to a misreading of Russia since it minimizes the role of Japan’s foreign policy professionals, who have the experience and language skills to accurately understand Russia’s true intentions. Abe apparently sees himself as a broad strategist capable of shaping a coalition to constrain China’s power, without being guided by many other more experienced strategists.

Although these factors specific to Abe are the most likely explanation for Japan’s tenacious pursuit of closer relations, the Russian side too has played its part. It has periodically fanned the flames of Japanese false hope by offering vague comments that appear to indicate that a favorable territorial deal may be possible, most notably in Putin’s famous “hikiwake” statement of March 2012. In response to a question from a Japanese journalist, Putin called for the countries’ territorial dispute to be resolved by means of a judo “draw” in Japanese.26 Mention of “hikiwake” enabled many on the Japanese side to imagine that Putin was offering major new concessions. This was no doubt the intention; if Japanese optimism could be invigorated, it would likely to lead to increased offers of economic cooperation and a gap between the positions of Japan and the United States. This is precisely what has occurred.

Ambiguous words of encouragement have been offered on other occasions. Speaking in Tokyo on December 16, Putin told his audience, “If someone thinks that we are interested in merely promoting economic ties, and the peace treaty is being put off—they are wrong. In my opinion, signing the peace treaty is the most important issue.”27 This statement served its purpose of encouraging the Japanese government to ignore all of the signs that a favorable deal is unreachable, and to continue the “new approach” in 2017. This pattern is likely to continue, as Russian officials stringing along their Japanese counterparts with hints that, while concessions are not possible at present, there may be a chance after the Russian presidential elections of 2018.

The Russian side has actively sought to goad the Abe administration into demonstrating Japan’s independence from the United States. This has been done by publicly bemoaning Japan’s lack of autonomy in international politics and suggesting that it was “blackmailed” by Washington into introducing sanctions. The express purpose has been to hurt the pride of the Japanese leadership and to provoke a display of independence with regard to Russia policy. The most obvious example of this tactic came in January 2017 when Lavrov accused the United States of “doing the maximum to undermine the prospects for the normalisation of relations” between Russia and Japan, claiming that it “tried to treat its Japanese ally as a second-class member of the international community.”28 This message was deliberately crafted to hit a nerve with Abe who had declared in the first major foreign policy speech of his second term that “Japan is not, and will never be, a Tier-two country.”29

The reality is that Moscow is leading on Tokyo with no real prospect of agreeing to compromise on the sovereignty of the two larger islands, either in full or via joint administration. The question that remains is whether Russia would agree to transfer the two smaller islands. Putin has said on many occasions that he would authorize such a transfer after the signing of a peace treaty, as stipulated in the 1956 Joint Declaration. However, there are reasons to question whether Russia would actually fulfil this promise or if its conditions for a signing a peace treaty would make an agreement at all realistic. Offering the transfer of the two islands has always been low risk for the Russian side because it has known that this was insufficient to secure the agreement of Japan. It showed Russia’s supposed willingness to compromise and to keep Japanese hopes alive. If, however, Japan were now willing to accept this proposal and relinquish its claims to the two larger islands, it is entirely possible that Russia would move the goalposts and find a way to avoid the transfer of even Shikotan and Habomai. Indeed, Putin provides an indication of how this would be done when he states (as he has done on several occasions) that the 1956 agreement says nothing about the conditions under which the transfer would be made nor what the subsequent situation would be with regard to sovereignty.30 He is buying himself an insurance policy and establishing the grounds on which Russia could renege on the apparent offer to transfer two islands.


Despite the best efforts of the Abe administration to claim otherwise, there is no mistaking that the “new approach” and Putin’s December visit were a failure for Japan. What is more, with the Russian side showing no intention to compromise yet plenty of ability to manipulate their less wily Japanese counterparts, there appears little prospect for greater success in 2017.

Notwithstanding this lack of progress, the “new approach” is set to continue. Abe is expected to be granted a third term as LDP president, giving him the potential to serve as prime minister until 2021. In addition, the pro-Russian proclivities of Trump suggest that he is unlikely to oppose Japan’s Russia policy any time soon. That said, Togo goes too far in suggesting that the positive trend in Japanese-Russian relations has now “acquired an irreversible character.”31 Were Abe to be leave office, it is almost certain that his signature foreign policy would fall with him. Likewise, it is far from certain that Trump’s desire for better relations with Russia will endure given the many frictions between the countries’ national interests, the hard-baked anti-Russian attitudes of much of the US establishment, and the prospect of Putin repeating his approach to Abe of offering little in return. If Washington then shifted to placing serious pressure on Tokyo to abandon its Russia policy, Japan would have little choice but to fall in line. The “new approach” is unlikely to deliver a lasting shift in relations. Instead, this time will likely be recalled as a brief deviation from the established course of bilateral relations, when the personal fixation of a powerful prime minister led to a few years of improved atmospherics, yet ultimately failed to deliver a resolution to the countries’ territorial dispute.

1. The Financial Times, January 17, 2016.

2. Togo Kazuhiko, “Alternative Scenarios: Positive Scenario 1,” The Asan Forum, Vol. 4, No. 5 (2016).

3. Mainichi Shimbun, November 7, 2016.

4. The Financial Times, September 3, 2016.

5. Togo Kazuhiko, “Alternative Scenarios: Positive Scenario 2,” The Asan Forum, Vol. 4, No. 6 (2016).

6. The Diplomat, December 31, 2016.

7. Russia Beyond the Headlines, December 16, 2016.

8. Bloomberg, September 2, 2016.

9. Valdai Discussion Club, November 19, 2016.

10. Nikkei, October 17, 2016.

11. TASS, December 16, 2016.

12. The Japan Times, December 18, 2016.

13. Bloomberg, September 2, 2016.

14. Kyodo, December 13, 2016.

15. Nikkei, November 1, 2016.

16. RIA Novosti, December 2, 2016.

17. Kyodo, May 7, 2017.

18. Kyodo, December 18, 2016.

19. Business Journal, January 19, 2017.

20. Ibid.

21. Asahi Shimbun, December 16, 2016.

22. Rossiiskaya Gazeta, January 17, 2017.

23. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 16, 2017.

24. Associated Press, December 15, 2016.

25. Gavam McCormack, “Japan: Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s Agenda,” The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus 14, no. 24-1 (2016): 3.

26. Asahi Shimbun, March 2, 2012.

27. RT, December 16, 2016.

28. Rossiiskaya Gazeta, January 17, 2017.

29. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 2013, “Japan is Back, by Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, 22 February 2013 at CSIS,” http://www.mofa.go.jp/announce/pm/abe/us_20130222en.html.

30. Kyodo, December 18, 2016.

31. Togo Kazuhiko, “Alternative Scenarios: Positive Scenario 1,” The Asan Forum, Vol. 4, No. 5 (2016).

  • RAGE

    Interesting how decidedly hostile attitudes to Russia can influence perceptions of events and policy. This piece is a key example of that. For example, claiming that Putin being late for the meeting with Abe somehow signals his disregard for the host and the meeting is foolish and counterfactual. Putin is infamous for being late to meetings, and it seems to have more to do with security concerns of the Russian establishment (to whom Putin is absolutely irreplaceable) than with any “wilyness” that the author claims is innate in Russian politics.

    And as expected, it is written by a westerner, whose governments have made it a central piece of their foreign policy to antagonize Russia in every way possible, deny the validity of their geopolitical concerns and consistently misinterpret their actions as being the most evil and deceitful possible for god knows how long.