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USJI Voice Vol.22

December 2016 – What we can learn from the Abe-Putin talks: How should Japan and the US deal with Russia?

February 15,2017
Akihiro Iwashita
Professor, Hokkaido University/Kyushu University

With the inauguration of the Trump presidency, the direction of US foreign policy has become unclear. However, the president’s executive order to ban the entry of nationals of seven countries, including Syria, into the US as a countermeasure against terrorism and his statements on building a wall along the US-Mexico border have stirred the world. In addition, while President Trump has taken a tough stance on China, seen in his telephone conversation with the president of Taiwan before his inauguration, his meeting with Prime Minister Abe of Japan soon after assuming office was termed an “Abe-Trump honeymoon” by the Japanese media. What is now attracting the most attention is the manner in which Trump intends to build a relationship with Russia under President Putin, whom he said he “respects” even before the election. According to some media reports, Russian intelligence has some compromising information about President Trump and as a result, he has been criticized as being “soft on Russia” by government sources.

It was Prime Minister Abe who engineered the agreement of President Putin to seek to improve Japanese-Russian relations by holding talks in December last year in Japan. Given that the US has been very cautious about improving its relationship with Russia, as seen by former President Obama’s repeated advice to Prime Minister Abe to “not approach Putin,” the world’s attention is focused on developments that will take place under President Trump. We can obtain some insight into this by examining the outcome of the Japanese-Russian summit of December last year. So what really took place at the Japanese-Russian summit?

Outcomes of the Japan-Russia summit meeting

Why has the US refused to improve its relationship with Russia in the first place? The primary reason is Russia’s deep involvement in the Ukraine crisis, including the annexation of Crimea. Russia has consequently found itself in an economically difficult situation because of a combination of economic sanctions arising from the Crimea issue and the low price of oil. It has also been isolated politically in international society, and only a few countries, such as China and India, have shown support or understanding toward Russia. For Russia, a country that wants to disturb the “accord” of the G7 over sanctions and wipe out its image of being isolated, Prime Minister Abe’s initiative to improve Japan’s relationship with Russia, through focusing on economic co-operation in order to achieve a quick resolution of the Northern Territories issue, was regarded as a “godsend.” In fact, Prime Minister Abe was shown more hospitality than President Xi Jinping of China at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2016, which paved the way for President Putin’s visit to Japan in December. The reason for scheduling the Japan-Russia meeting in December was that for Japan, it would immediately follow the US presidential election, and therefore the Japanese government would be under less “pressure” from the Obama administration, resulting in Prime Minister Abe having more leeway to develop Japanese foreign policy toward Russia; from the Russian point of view, the meeting coincided with the EU’s meeting to decide to extend sanctions against Russia.

The meeting was held on December 15–16, 2016, first in the Prime Minister’s hometown of Yamaguchi, and then in Tokyo. Prime Minister Abe himself appeared on television on the night of the conclusion of the meeting and emphasized that it was “a success.” Some people in Japan agreed with this.

However, many commentators in Japan have evaluated the meeting as “a failure.” Most overseas media have branded it as an “overwhelming victory” for Putin. In short, it cannot be regarded as “a success.” The reasons are simple. Most importantly, there was no joint statement. While there was a statement for the press, it was presented to the media of both countries in Russian and Japanese and important issues remained unsolved. Russia did not allow the use of phrases like “resolution of the Northern Territories issue.” Furthermore, the names of the four islands of “the Northern Territories” were not specified in the discussion on joint economic activities, which did not contain any reference to sovereignty or the territorial dispute, and insisted on the use of the term “Southern Kuril Islands.” In short, Russia did not allow official recognition of the existence of a territorial dispute.

Is Putin priming the pump?

Since assuming office, Prime Minister Abe has been insisting that he will solve the Northern Territories issue. It has been assumed, based on a variety of sources, that while the resolution of the so-called “return of the four islands” (of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan, and the Habomai Islands) on which Japan has long insisted might not be achieved, a “handing over of two islands” (of Shikotan and the Habomai Islands) would be realized. However, as has already been pointed out, according to the published outcomes of the December meeting, Putin has achieved wide-ranging economic co-operation in Siberia and the Far East and managed to achieve an improvement in Japan-Russian relations, which means that he has been able to tell the world that Russia is no longer isolated on the international scene, without giving even an inch with regard to the Northern Territories issue. He has also won the possibility of economic development on the islands of the “Northern Territories” through joint economic activities with Japan, while shelving the sovereignty issue. The Japanese side claimed that the plan would be pursued under a “special arrangement” but a Russian presidential aide insisted that it would take place under Russian sovereignty.

Why did the Japanese plan fail? Following a September visit to the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Prime Minister Abe was cheerful in front of the media and was clearly hopeful that the Northern Territories issue would be resolved. The Japanese media reported a resolution through the handing over of Habomai and Shikotan (Yomiuri Shimbun) and the possibility of joint rule of Kunashiri and Etorofu (Nikkei), and opinion polls conducted by Hokkaido Shimbun, Yomiuri Shimbun, and NHK found that the majority of Japanese supported the “return of two islands as a first step.” What was surprising here was that a majority of members of an organization set up by former residents of the four islands, who had formerly insisted on the “return of the four islands,” seemed to have also come to support the “return of two islands as a first step.” Should that plan have been accepted at the meeting in December, public opinion would have supported the decision by Prime Minister Abe and a big step toward the resolution of the territorial dispute would have been made.

The tide turned after Japan-Russia talks at the APEC Conference in Lima in November. Prime Minister Abe poured cold water over expectations of an early resolution and toned down his utterances. There is a view that Putin had been whispering “honeyed words,” but Putin’s position has not changed for the past ten years. His position is that the negotiation is based on the Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration of 1956; that since Etorofu and Kunashiri Islands are not referred to in the Declaration, they were not negotiable; that while the Declaration states that Shikotan and the Habomai Islands would be handed over after the conclusion of a peace treaty, because such a treaty has not been concluded, it may turn out to be the case that Japan administers the islands under Russian sovereignty. It is unclear why Prime Minister Abe and his aides had not comprehended Putin’s hardline position. The key may be found in the fact that the negotiation was led not necessarily by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) but by the Prime Minister’s Office influenced by some from the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) this time around. It goes without saying that Putin would respond positively to a proposal of economic co-operation. Although they brought up the territorial dispute, he did not respond to it.

Post-summit meeting prospects

To cut a long story short, it appears that the Abe administration expected that at least the Shikotan and the Habomai Islands would be returned to Japan immediately if they went back to the Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration of 1956. Their expectations can be summarized as follows: to aggressively push economic cooperation and urge the implementation of the Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration in order to achieve the handover of the two islands, and thus achieve “two islands plus α” by introducing joint economic activities to Etorofu and Kunashiri. With this, the peace treaty, which is s condition for the handover of the two islands, would also be realized.

However, reality saw the completely opposite outcome. It is reported that during the tête-à-tête in Yamaguchi, Putin did not even acknowledge the Tokyo Declaration of 1993, which had stated that “a peace treaty will be concluded by solving the problem of ownership of the four islands.” Most likely, Putin told the Prime Minister that he could not touch upon the territorial dispute under the current circumstances but he would be sure to do so in the future. Prime Minister Abe’s response was, in effect, “I believe in Putin.” Some Japanese commentators who insist on the “success” of Abe’s diplomacy are appreciative of this strategy, while a few even believe that the two may have concluded a “secret pact.”

However, trying to move matters forward based on an “I believe you/I do not believe you” strategy in diplomatic negotiations, particularly over a territorial dispute that is of critical importance to the state, is nothing but a risk. Prime Minister Abe justified his actions by pointing out that nothing has moved for the past seventy years but this does not mean that such a strategy will lead to any sort of resolution. Rather, it might have undermined earlier negotiations and movements related to the Northern Territories issue. Since the territorial dispute was not mentioned, an impression that “resolution of the territorial dispute” is no longer necessary for concluding a peace treaty has been created.

In fact, the clamor for the “return of four islands” is quieting in Japan. It feels that the negotiations have somehow transformed into aiming to get the southern two islands – Shikotan and the Habomai Islands – back. What would happen if joint economic activities in the Northern Territories based on the Joint Declaration of 1956 are initiated now? Judging from Russia’s position that the islands of Etorofu and Kunashiri are outside the scope of any agreement, it is very likely that any proposal would argue that activities carried out on Etorofu and Kunashiri would occur under Russian sovereignty. How would the Japanese government respond if Russia suggests carrying out activities on Shikotan and the Habomai Islands under a “special arrangement” that does not touch upon the sovereignty of either country? Accepting this could mean the undermining of the claim to Japanese sovereignty over Shikotan and the Habomai Islands. This is because the return of the two islands after the conclusion of the peace treaty could become a precedent that denies Japanese sovereignty over the two islands.

If the Abe administration has been aiming to conclude a peace treaty in the form of “two islands plus α,” then it appears that future negotiations can only occur on the basis of “two islands minus α,” and the peace treaty might be concluded with only the Habomai Islands being returned to Japanese sovereignty.

The beginning of the end of the movement for the return of the Northern Territories

What the summit has undermined is not limited to the negotiations themselves. It has also badly shaken the movement for the return of the Northern Territories. In the face of Putin’s hardline stance, Prime Minister Abe, in his efforts to present the summit as “a success,” had a letter prepared by the former islanders, which he handed over to Putin in the presence of media organizations such as NHK. The Prime Minister’s Office insists that because of the letter, some successes, such as the expansion of the “free visit” quota for the former islanders’ visits to their ancestral gravesites, have been achieved. However, this has been received negatively by the majority of former islanders. Assuming that elderly former islanders (many now aged over 80) are able to make trips to such abandoned sites is in itself naïve; and what is worse is that the “letter” did not demand the “return of the territories” at all. Certainly, former islanders wish to visit the islands freely, but this is because the islands have not been returned and there is no doubt that what they most strongly desire is precisely their return. It is speculated that the letter was minutely examined in order not to offend Putin but it remains unpublished. Because the president of Chishima League, made up of former islanders, also signed the letter, criticism has been expressed at the League’s meetings and there is confusion over its contents. Until now, the former islanders had maintained a united front for the “return of four islands” in public, but it will be difficult to maintain this unity in future. The movement demanding the return of the Northern Territories is also under pressure to change as a result of the summit meeting.

The route Japan should take: lessons from the US

As seen above, the Japan-Russia summit took a polar opposite course to the one the Abe administration originally anticipated. While they insist on its success, the administration is most likely aware of the failure of these negotiation with Russia, which were led by Prime Minister’s Office without involving MOFA. A personnel shuffle in MOFA that was due to occur this summer was brought forward, and a rising star in the Russian Department was promoted as head of the Department early this year (the former head involved in the negotiations has been seconded to the Ministry of Finance). Most likely, the new head is tasked with carrying out the tricky negotiations to realize the “outcomes” of the summit meeting as positively as possible.

From the author’s current perspective, while the Prime Minister’s Office’s scheme flopped, the Japan-Russia summit meeting did in fact relieve the Northern Territories issue of the curse of the “return of four islands” and won more room for negotiation and discussion. However, it is doubtful if an improvement in the relationship with Russia is in Japan’s national interest. It is likely that the return of two, or even one, island is the best that can be envisaged if negotiations continue in their present form. If, objectively speaking, the final treaty gains less than was agreed in the Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration of 1956, after 70 years of negotiations, it is hardly a fitting tribute to Japan as a major power.

President Putin revealed a startling view of history at the joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe. He said that the islands referred to as the Kuril Islands (Northern Territories) had been under Russian sovereignty since time immemorial, and were ceded to Japan by Russia in the 1855 treaty between the two countries. After that, Japan aggressively expanded to the point that it once occupied northern Sakhalin. In short, Russia has simply taken back what is rightfully theirs. While Putin continued to claim that he was against the “ping-pong of historical interpretation,” his inaccurate presentation of the history of these islands shows the difficulty inherent in “believing in Putin.”

It is not certain whether President Putin possesses “compromising information” about President Trump. If President Trump moves to improve the US relationship with Russia, this will in turn support Japan’s efforts to improve its own relationship with Russia. On the other hand, there is the view that there will be no structural change in the US-Russia relationship amid continuing geopolitical tensions. In that case, even if the US-Russia relationship were to improve, this might only be a temporary phenomenon. Japan should start facing the problem of Putin by sharing the details of these negotiations with the US as an ally. This would help an unstable US administration avoid being manipulated by Russia as well as aid Japan in not being taken advantage of by Russia any further. The true value of the Japan-US alliance is not found in the context of its relationship with China, as is often said, but in the manner in which the two countries choose to collaborate globally across the Atlantic and Pacific in the face of a strong pressure from Putin.


<Related USJI Research Project by the Author>
Asia and the world as seen by border studies: Implications for US-Japan Relations


The USJI Voice is a policy-related opinion paper produced by researchers at USJI-affiliated universities. The USJI Voice is written for experts in areas connected to U.S.-Japan relations. Please share with us your opinions and suggestions related to your areas of interest.

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