Japan and Russia’s small steps strategy

Can the two countries avoid rubbing each other the wrong way at the Vladivostok Summit?

Céline Pajon

Government and governance, International relations | Asia, East Asia, The World

6 September 2017

It might be best to let sleeping dogs lie on the issue of a peace treaty, but could economic interests help further the relationship? Céline Pajon takes a look at what to expect from the Vladivostok Summit.

On the eve of the Vladivostok Summit, should we expect any significant progress in the laborious rapprochement between Japan and Russia?

If the December 2016 Summit did not generate decisive progress on the territorial issues between the two countries, it nevertheless heralded a new approach: faced by an adverse geostrategic environment since the Ukraine crisis, Russia and Japan are no longer seeking the quick conclusion of a peace treaty. They now favour an improvement in relations that is gradual, pragmatic and wide-ranging.

Struck by Western sanctions since its annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and fearing diplomatic isolation, Moscow had been trying to reinforce economic and political ties with its Asian partners.

Expectations regarding Japan were initially high: Abe was keen on improving relations with Russia and imposed belated and mostly symbolic sanctions while maintaining favourable conditions for dialogue with Moscow. Moreover, Russia saw Japan as an intermediary that could help the country be reintegrated into the G7 Summit.

More on this: December talks a pivot point | Graeme Auton

Russian hopes in Japan were soon disappointed, however, when Tokyo failed to prevent the G7 from adopting new sanctions, an outcome that was interpreted in Moscow as proof of Japan’s subordination to the United States.

In reality, the acceleration of Russia’s pivot to Asia since 2014 has basically amounted to a strengthening of Russia-China relations, resulting in a greater dependency of Moscow in relation to Beijing.

Since the end of 2016, the return of security concerns to the negotiations has been very clear. This is first because the strategic significance of the Kuril islands has grown for Moscow in recent years, particularly as Russia looks to install a protection and anti-access system along the country’s northern coast and around the Arctic, from the Kola Peninsula to the Kuril Islands.

At the same time, the Russian attitude towards western powers, especially the US, has considerably hardened. That explains why Vladimir Putin said in June that if the Kuril Islands were returned to Japan, the installation of American bases there would be “absolutely unacceptable to Russia” – this position further dwindling the prospect of a territorial deal.

Against this deteriorating background, domestic support for a territorial compromise appears shallow in both countries. In Russia, there are few advocates of a rapprochement with Japan besides Vladimir Putin himself. In recent years, the Russians have come to realise than an agreement over the islands would not necessarily entail a large influx of investment from Japan, whose private sector shows scant interest in the Russian market. Russian leaders have also stated on several occasions that it would be unthinkable to ‘sell’ Russian territory. On the contrary, there are numerous interest groups in Russia – political, economic and administrative – that argue in favour of closer relations with China.

More on this: Courting Mother Russia | Gilbert Rozman

Japan, for its part, appears to be more supportive of a rapprochement, even if its proponents remain in a minority. Until December 2016, it was officials in the Ministry for Economy and Trade (METI) who handled the Russian question on behalf of Shinzo Abe. For METI, the goal has been to push forward with economic and energy-related cooperation without necessarily linking it to the territorial dispute. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), by contrast, is less willing to deepen a relationship that might harm Japanese interests over the territorial question, and which places Tokyo in an awkward position with its American ally.

Japanese business, meanwhile has little inclination to invest in Russia, while Japanese defence circles distrust Moscow and do not believe that any agreement would cause Russia to cease military activity around Japan.

Considering the hurdles on the road for a Peace Treaty, Russia and Japan turned to another approach that would allow more tangible and functional results. The two countries’ strategic objectives would be achieved by improving economic cooperation – mainly by working together to develop the Southern Kuril Islands – as well as by building up confidence on security issues.

This approach has a number of benefits: it encourages dialogue and regular visits; it offers tangible proof, with each ‘mini-victory’, that the partnership is advancing; and it allows both governments to feed their populations stage-managed stories of diplomatic triumph. In its early stages, it should allow Japan to return to the islands, rather than the islands to return to Japan.

With the new approach, expectations of what a bilateral rapprochement can achieve have been lowered. In particular, Japan no longer expects the rapprochement to break up the Sino-Russian entente, setting its sights instead on thwarting a united Sino-Russian front against Japan on questions of territory and history. To do so, Tokyo must concentrate on stepping up economic cooperation, and tone down talk of the territorial question.

The return of the islands to Japan is no longer central to the relationship. Japan’s strategy now consists of fleshing out the relationship in every possible direction.

In Russia, the advocates of a rapprochement with Japan are aiming to achieve two goals: first, to promote Russia’s pivot to Asia with the cultivation of new partnerships and the development of the Russian Far East and, second, to demonstrate that Russia is not isolated on the international stage. To achieve this, Moscow is striving to secure long-term economic cooperation with Japan, with economic and territorial questions continuing to be separated.

More on this: Russia underperforms at pivoting | Pavel K Baev

However, the prospects for economic cooperation are not bright. The eight-point investment plan put forward by Abe in May 2016 consists mainly of repackaging pre-existing projects or relaunching them. So far, the program has fallen short of expectations. In addition, the joint program for the economic development of the Southern Kurils that requires a special status for the islands is a complicated and highly technical task. The recent Russian unilateral decision to grant the islands ‘special economic zone’ status, emphasising that foreign investment will be conducted under the Russian law, was a blow to Japan’s claims and expectations to a special, more protective, legal framework.

In terms of strategic thinking, there is still more that divides Japan and Russia than unites them. The first bone of contention concerns the two countries’ relationship with Washington. Hardliners in Russia argue that a Peace Treaty with Japan is not on the cards so long as the alliance persists. The latest 2+2 dialogue has also shown that Russia and Japan have different perspectives on the North Korean problem. What is more, certain questions remain off limits: Moscow is thought to have rejected repeated Japanese requests to discuss the rise of China and the economic and security challenges that it entails – even if a lingering distrust in Russia about the ultimate aims of China’s rise to power and its knock-on effects on Russian interests is real.

By flagging up progress, dampening expectations, and using the bilateral relationship as a source of leverage or pressure over other countries (such as China or the United States), the Japan-Russia relationship seems to be evolving along the lines of the ‘utilitarian’ partnership between China and Russia. The idea is therefore for the two neighbours to notch up gradual gains in a pragmatic manner.

As such, it is the journey that matters more than the destination (which officially remains a peace treaty). Japan and Russia, having lowered their goals, should now be able to achieve them by adopting this approach. Nevertheless, the geostrategic context is still not favourable to any quick progress, and the summit in Vladivostok is not expected to lead to any important deal.

This analysis will be developed in a forthcoming report that will be published in the coming month on Ifri’s website.

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