Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s persistent attempts to repair Tokyo’s relations with Moscow continue to fail as gaps between the two sides widen on a number of key issues. While the dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands (referred to as the Northern Territories by Japan) often does not receive the same attention as Japan’s territorial squabbles with China and South Korea, Tokyo is embroiled in a seven-decade-old row with Moscow over the islands’ sovereignty. Abe is wary of Russia’s increasingly close ties with China, as evidenced by their joint naval exercise in the Sea of Japan last month.
Abe’s desire to resolve the Kuril spat and enhance ties with Russia, which has the potential to become an even larger supplier of energy to Japan, prompted a diplomatic offensive after he took office in late 2012. He has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin more than 10 times since then and even took the politically risky move of attending the opening ceremony for the Sochi Olympics. (Leaders from the rest of the G-7 boycotted the event.) Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year and its continued meddling in eastern Ukraine have complicated diplomatic avenues for Abe. He faces the choice of salvaging his Russia policy or standing firm with the international community and especially Japan’s ally in Washington.
Through Abe’s diplomatic overtures, there was some hope that Japan and Russia might finally be able to resolve their territorial dispute and sign a peace treaty to officially conclude their hostilities from World War II. But relations have soured precipitously because of Japan’s imposition of sanctions against Russia for its role in Ukraine. Tokyo has been forced to apply the brakes on its engagement with Russia and postponed a long-planned visit by Putin later this year.
Abe’s pragmatic embrace of Russia is now in tatters. On the contentious issue of the Kuril Islands, both sides have failed to gain traction toward a compromise. Japan’s official policy remains that all four of the southern islands — Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai and Shikotan — be returned to its administration. Unofficially, Tokyo has been exploring potential compromises on this position such as splitting administration of islands or deferring the issue of sovereignty for the foreseeable future. While Russia contemplated splitting the islands in the early years of the dispute, Moscow has recently shown no willingness to cede any territory back to Japan.
Further inflaming tensions on the territorial row, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev visited Etorofu in August. He dismissed Japan’s condemnation of the trip, saying, “This is how it is and how it will be.” This is not the first time that Medvedev has riled Japan on the disputed isles; he has made a number of previous trips to the Kurils and has indicated Russia’s desire to invest in the infrastructure and military capacity of the islands.
In addition to the territorial spat and tensions over Ukraine, the Abe administration is concerned with Putin’s increasingly close relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Putin is scheduled to attend ceremonies in Beijing on Sept. 3 that will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the defeat of imperial Japan. Representatives from several other countries hostile to U.S. interests — such as Sudan, North Korea and Venezuela — are expected to attend. Most U.S. allies, with the exception of South Korea, have refrained from accepting China’s invitation, out of concerns that the event, with a planned huge military parade, will be a massive demonstration of Beijing’s enhanced military prowess.
Russia has amped up military cooperation with China and just finished a significant bilateral naval drill in the Sea of Japan. The exercises, right in Tokyo’s backyard, involved 22 vessels, 20 aircraft, 40 armored vehicles and more than 500 troops. They marked the first time that Beijing has engaged in war games so close to Japan — a not-so-subtle statement to Tokyo and Washington that China won’t be easily deterred from its territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands (or Senkaku Islands) in the East China Sea.
Moscow and China are elevating their ties to a more strategic partnership. They are about to finalize a $400 billion deal struck last year that would see Russia supply China with an increased flow of natural gas for 30 years. And despite butting heads on several issues, Moscow and Beijing are looking to compartmentalize their rifts and areas of competition in Central Asia.
These factors suggest that Japan’s engagement with Russia needs to be more measured and expectations should be tempered. A grand bargain or policy of accommodation between the two sides appears unlikely, especially considering Moscow’s adversarial posture with the United States. Tokyo should give up on the idea — at least for now — that it can turn the page with Russia and establish a new basis for their relationship.