Stronger Russian-Japanese Relations: Prospects and Implications

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The relationship between Japan and Russia has seen a flurry of activity in recent months. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russia on May 6th, 2016 to meet with President Putin in Sochi, despite President Obama’s private attempts to discourage the talks. Since the meeting, Japan has announced billions in new foreign investment in Russia’s struggling economy. Most recently, Japan hosted talks with Russia at the Deputy Foreign Minister level in an attempt to resolve a longstanding territorial dispute between the two countries.

From a U.S. perspective, Japan’s aggressive push to improve relations with Russia might be puzzling at first glance. As a close ally of the United States, one might think that Japan would keep its distance from Russia in solidarity with the rest of the G7. In fact, Japan has strong incentives to seek closer ties with Russia such as improving energy security, countering Chinese influence in northeast Asia, and resolving the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories dispute. For Russia, Japan presents an alternative partner to China in its stalling “pivot to Asia,” which has so far failed to break Russia’s international economic isolation. These driving factors ensure that Russo-Japanese cooperation will only deepen with time, perhaps to the chagrin of the United States.

Relations between Russia and Japan have historically been frosty due to a number of lingering issues. Though it has been nearly 71 years since the conclusion of World War II, the two countries have failed to conclude an official peace treaty. The difficulty lies in determining the fate of a stretch of islands to the north of Japan, seized by Russia in the final days of the war. Known to the Japanese as the ‘Northern Territories’ and to the Russians as the ‘Kuril Islands’, both nations claim sovereignty over the islands.

After entering office in 2012, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made improving relations with Russia a strong priority. Between late 2012 and early 2014, Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin met ten separate times to discuss a variety of different issues, including the island territorial dispute. The two leaders have much in common – both are right-wing nationalists – and allegedly share a good rapport, built up over the course of many meetings.

Settling the Kuril dispute could open the door to economic cooperation benefiting both countries, especially Japan. Japan has very limited natural resources, and since its nuclear power plants were deactivated in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the island country must rely on imported hydrocarbons to keep its factories running. In the three years since the nuclear shutdown, Japan’s energy imports have skyrocketed to 97% of total consumption, with 90% of this amount sourced from the unstable Middle East. These energy imports flow through the South China Sea, vulnerable to Chinese disruption. Meanwhile, Russia possesses massive untapped energy reserves in its Russian Far East (RFE) region, and is eager to expand production to Japan. Western sanctions over Ukraine have taken their toll on the Russian economy, accelerating Moscow’s search for new economic partners in its vaunted “pivot to Asia.” Greater collaboration on energy production in the RFE would boost Japan’s energy security while strengthening Russia’s economy.

So far, Russia’s pivot to Asia has consisted largely of a multitude of bilateral deals signed with China, with only small increases in engagement in Central Asia and Southeast Asia. Most public among these agreements was the $400 billion gas deal signed in May 2014. Despite Moscow’s best efforts, trade volumes with China shrunk by 28.6% in 2015. Billions in anticipated Chinese investment have failed to materialize – the evidence suggests that many Chinese banks are complying with Western sanctions which restrict flows to Russia, and choosing instead to invest in the relatively stable markets of the United States and the EU.

China’s booming economy and growing population have raised fears over Chinese immigration to Russia’s Far East. As Russia’s population and economy shrink, bringing in Japan – a long-time rival of China’s – as an economic partner in the RFE is an easy way to balance Chinese influence in the region. To this end, Japan and Russia announced joint initiatives in 2012 to build a $13 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant along with a Mazda automotive factory in the port of Vladivostok. Tokyo feels threatened by an expansionist China, and hopes that stronger ties with Moscow will provide a counterweight to Beijing’s ambitions.

Tokyo’s efforts at rapprochement with Moscow were cut short in early 2014 by the eruption of the Ukraine crisis. As Russia was kicked out of the G8 in March 2014, Japan was forced to side with the remaining G7 group in opposition to Russia. Though early Japanese sanctions on Russia were fairly light and targeted mainly towards individuals, in September 2014 Tokyo expanded the sanctions, banning Russian banks from selling securities in Japan and restricting arms sales.

Relations first began to revive in September 2015, when President Putin and Prime Minister Abe met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York – their first face-to-face meeting since the onset of the Ukraine crisis. The two leaders met again in Sochi on May 6th, 2016 for informal talks over the protests of President Obama. Both sides agreed on an eight-point plan of bilateral economic cooperation. The Sochi talks were initially heralded positively by officials on both sides, and viewed by many observers as a turning point in Russo-Japanese relations. Abe declared that a “new approach” to bilateral relations had begun: “I have a sense that we are moving toward a breakthrough in the stalled peace treaty negotiations.” This “new approach” seems to involve tying increased economic cooperation with Russia to diplomatic movement on the territorial issue.

Since the Sochi talks, relations between Tokyo and Moscow have been punctuated by sweeping announcements, diplomatic incidents, and high-level dialogue. Japan appears intent on carrying through with its economic promises – its May 23rd announcement of $200 billion in new infrastructure exports included a special emphasis on the Russian Far East. Moreover, members of the Japanese Business Federation Japan-Russia Business Cooperation Committee traveled to Moscow on June 8th to meet with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich along with other high-level officials to discuss Abe’s eight-point economic cooperation plan.

Japan’s room to maneuver with Russia is constrained by its alliance with the United States, which has been less than supportive of Abe’s push to accommodate Russia. The 2016 annual G7 summit, held on May 27th in Japan, resulted in a strongly worded joint statement, which condemned Russian actions in Ukraine and reaffirmed the need for anti-Russian sanctions. That statement raised questions about Mr. Abe’s ability to influence other G7 leaders. Immediately after, Russia’s defense ministry announced a large boost in military infrastructure on the disputed Kurils. On June 8th, Russian and Chinese naval vessels jointly entered the waters surrounding the Japanese administered Senkaku islands, indicating possible support for China’s claim to the contested island chain.

Despite ongoing tensions, some progress towards a peace agreement is showing. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov met with Japanese special envoy Chikahito Harada met in Tokyo on June 22nd, opening discussions aimed at resolving the disputed islands. The two officials agreed to continue peace talks, with the next round to be held in Moscow. Though neither side has yet commented on the contents of the Tokyo negotiations, it is suspected that the groundwork was laid for a visit by Putin to Japan in the near future. If the past is any indication, the probable outcome of another meeting between Putin and Abe will be closer political and economic ties between their two countries. It is unlikely that the United States and the rest of the G7 will be pleased with such a result.

Photo Source: The Wall Street Journal

Cedric Kenney is a third year undergraduate student pursuing a B.A. in Political Science and Economics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is currently an intern in the U.S. House of Representatives. His interests include energy geopolitics, international security issues, and international development.

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4 thoughts on “Stronger Russian-Japanese Relations: Prospects and Implications

  1. I do not believe that a major strategic shift is likely, barring unforseen events

    This has a number of reasons:

    1: Abe is leading the nationalist faction in Japanese politics. He would have a very hard time convincing his nationalist backers of even the 2/2 split. The 2/2 split concerning the Kurils would already be highly controversial in Russia, and to be frank, while the Russians are dangling Kunashir and Iturup, they will not commit to ceding them, partly because ceding them to Japan would mean to cede them to the USA as well.
    2: Russia may cede these islands if there is an actual major rift in US-Japanese relations. Given that increasing Chinese assertiveness is forcing Japan and the USA together, and given that Russia cannot credibly claim or offer to be a security insurer against China (certainly not while being in a confrontation with the west, and even if one is a Russian patriot and thus sees Russia and China as being the in same weight class, North Eastern Asia would be an area where China holds most of the good cards in a possible Sino-Russian rivalry), the well, the Kurils arent important enough, from a Japanese pov., to trade them for the quite useful US alliance.
    3: Some level of increased economic ties will happen. Russia is pretty accomodating for Japanese business interests (because Russia does not fear them), Japanese leaders almost universally believe that the Russian far east is far too important to leave it to the Chinese (which is also the reasoning they will use to justify their actions in Washington). These ties however will not signify a major change.
    There is a small possiblity that a combination of Russian Maskirovka and US ineptitude could result in an American misperception that such increased trade ties are a major change and represent impending betrayal by Japan, and that America subsequently grossly overreacts and strategically alienates Japan. While the odds of such a scenario (think of some possible US presidents and their respective tempers) are not as fanciful as they used to be, but it still is not very likely.

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    • Appreciate the feedback! Author of the article here…..

      There are certainly challenges to achieving true rapprochement between Moscow and Tokyo. That said, Abe has invested a great deal of political capital in improving relations, and is unlikely to stop trying anytime soon. Regarding the territorial dispute with Russia, Abe was quoted in 2014 as saying “my mission as a politician, as prime minister, is to achieve this no matter what.” You are correct in stating that Abe’s conservative base may not look favorably upon a 2/2 solution, but it seems Abe has pushed for a treaty regardless, and his recent achievement of a supermajority in the Japanese parliament demonstrates that the Japanese public still supports him.

      It is true that past Japanese Prime Ministers have tried and failed to resolve the dispute (Hashimoto Ryutaro and Mori Yoshiro are two examples). Whether or not Abe will succeed remains to be seen – I do believe he has the best chance Japan has had in a long time. Given the symbolic importance of the Kurils to the Russian public (they see the islands as having been paid for with the lives of Russian soldiers during WWII) the dispute may continue for some time. Even without a resolution to the territorial dispute, it may be that the island issue is becoming somewhat decoupled from improved economic cooperation. The business communities of Japan and Russia will likely find common ground on investment despite the geopolitical situation. Besides, even if Tokyo and Moscow’s ongoing negotiations over the islands do not yield results for years, the fact that leaders on both sides are interacting regularly is a positive sign for bilateral relations.

      As for U.S. misunderstandings over Russo-Japanese relations leading to weaker ties with Japan, I do not see that happening under a stable U.S. administration (though as you said, this election cycle is a wild card for our foreign policy). Even an outright peace treaty and territorial deal between Japan and Russia could not overly shake the U.S. alliance with Japan(again assuming a rational administration) as Japan is just far too valuable for U.S. foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific.

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