Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 15, 2016
Japan and Russia, famously referred to as "distant neighbours," have shared a long and complicated history of bilateral relations.
Will Abe be able to forge a new partnership with Putin? For the first time in eleven years, a Russian head of state is travelling to Japan on Thursday, 15 December. President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at a mountainside inn at the hot spring resort of Nagato in Abe's home constituency in southwest Japan, and again in Tokyo on Friday. Abe and Putin have met on numerous occasions on the sidelines of international meetings. Keenly interested in improving Japan's strained relations with Russia, Abe had even travelled to Russia in February 2014 to meet Putin in Sochi for the Winter Olympic Games while most of his G-7 colleagues had stayed away. Abe visited Sochi again this May and he once again met with Putin at an Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September. Japan and Russia, famously referred to as "distant neighbours," have shared a long and complicated history of bilateral relations. Not only did geographical proximity not translate into more cooperative ties, it also became a reason for tensions in the past. A case in point was the occupation of the Kuril Islands by Russia post-World War II. The two countries have not signed a Peace Treaty ever since, leading to a protracted seven-decade disagreement over a number of issues. However, there are signs that point to greater resolve on both sides to change this. This Nagato summit is expected to be a step in this direction, especially if progress can be made on the islands dispute. The primary focus of frequent talks between Tokyo and Moscow has been on the signing of an agreement that would formally end their World War II hostilities, i.e. a Peace Treaty. Other issues that would be of significance to PM Abe are related to building stronger economic ties, and balancing the growing Sino-Russian ties that could undermine Japanese security. For Russia, stronger ties with Japan will allow access to a new market, finance, and technology from Japan, and an opportunity to reduce its economic dependence on China.

The Islands dispute

The Kuril island chain stretches across the Sea of Okhotsk from the Japanese island Hokkaido to the southern tip of Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula. A small part of this chain consists of the four disputed islands — Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan, and the rocky Habomai islets. They are collectively known as the 'Northern Territories' in Japan, while Russia refers to them as 'Southern Kurils'. With the end of the World War II and the subsequent annexation of the islands by Russia, all Japanese residents were deported. In the recent years, Russia has indicated willingness to return the two smaller islands — Shikotan and Habomai, but Japan has rejected this idea since they constitute only seven percent of the land in question. Beyond just national pride, the islands also have significant natural resources that would benefit the owner. The islands are ringed by rich fishing grounds and there are assessments that they possess offshore oil and gas reserves as well. Attempts to resolve this dispute has been derailed multiple times in the past. However, Abe and Putin have started afresh this year. Abe has adopted a dual-track approach, by laying out an eight-point economic cooperation plan to keep the Russians interested in the Peace Treaty negotiations. Along with this proposal, some have also suggested that Abe reconsider the old position and seek the return of the smaller two islands as the initial step while establishing joint authority over the larger two. The sensitive nature of the issue implies that both Japan and Russia would also require some sort of national consensus to make any progress. Despite Abe's strong support base in Japan, conservatives even within his own party would not be satisfied with territorial compromise as suggested above. They seek the return of all four islands. On the other hand, the presence of Russian citizens, military installations, and even missiles on these islands would prevent Putin from giving up a significant amount of the territory without extracting significant returns.

Stronger economic cooperation

Economic cooperation is a prominent issue on the agenda of the Abe-Putin summit. Hiroshige Seko, Japan's Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry visited Moscow in early November to lay the groundwork for Putin's visit to Japan. Both the sides have agreed to formulate plans for projects like urban environment improvement, transport infrastructure, training of Russian engineers, oil and gas development, and even for decommissioning Japan's tsunami-ravaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor. A remarkable fact is that Hiroshige Seko holds the special office responsible for trade and economic cooperation with Russia, and this is the first time in Japanese history that a specific country-based portfolio has been entrusted to a minister.

China, the elephant in the room

Since 1991, the relationship between China and Russia has transformed significantly. They have upped their security, economic and diplomatic collaboration in recent years. However, many argue that it is ultimately an "axis of convenience" and China and Russia have their own share of bilateral disputes which they cannot completely ignore even as they attempt to create a non-US sphere of influence across Eurasia. Closer Russia-Japan partnership could have two implications with regards to China. First, access to Japanese markets, finance, know-how and technology could reduce Russian dependence on China, assisting it to adopt a more realist posture on this bilateral relationship. Second, friendly relationship with Russia would allow Japan greater space to negotiate settlement of its own disputes with China, including on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. It is clear however that even as it draws Russia closer, Japan will need to keep in mind its longstanding security relationship and agreement with the United States. It will be necessary to keep in view the evolving security dynamics in the Indo-Pacific, and how the Trump presidency engages with the region. The Russians have a lot at stake in the upcoming summit as well. Russia has been, to a large extent, isolated following its invasion of Crimea. Engaging Asian countries in general — and Japan in particular — can help mitigate this to a certain extent. Being the third largest economy in the world makes Japan a desirable partner. It will allow Russia a basis for resetting its relationship with some countries in the Western hemisphere. Prime Minister Abe has added a personal flavour to the upcoming summit by inviting President Putin to his hometown. It now remains to be seen if Putin will reciprocate by investing his huge clout and popularity in Russia to strengthen this bilateral relationship. The author is a research intern at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.