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Russia and Japan: Acceleration to Peace?

Why does Abe increase the pace of territorial negotiations with Putin

2018 was full of Russian-Japanese negotiations on the territorial issue. It consists of Tokyo's claims to the four southern Kuril Islands, which were taken over by the USSR / Russia following the Second World War. Japan considers them to be its northern territories and demands their return. The problem, according to Tokyo, is the main obstacle to the conclusion of a peace treaty between Russia and Japan. These negotiations are being conducted not only by the diplomats of the two countries, but also personally by their leaders. Moreover, in public space, they prefer to use the euphemism “peace treaty” instead of the phrase “territorial problem”.  

Russia and Japan: Acceleration to Peace?
Photo: Russian newspaper

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
The current Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, is especially active in territorial negotiations. Contrary to the principle of reciprocity in exchange of visits by top leaders of states, accepted in international affairs, he visited Russia twice in a row in the past year: in May - St. Petersburg and Moscow, and in September - Vladivostok. In St. Petersburg and Vladivostok, the Japanese leader took part in international economic forums, and in Moscow, together with the Russian president, he opened the cross years of culture between Russia and Japan.

ъ It has already become known that in January of next year Abe will again "look" into Russia on his way to the next Davos forum. In addition, he hopes that "in conjunction" with the summit of the "twenty" (G20) in June of the same year in the Japanese city of Osaka, Putin will pay an official visit to Japan. Finally, Shinzo Abe is eager to see his "friend Vladimir" at the Judo World Championships, which will be held next August in Japan.

All in all, Putin and Abe, when they were leaders of the two countries, met a total of 24 times, if we take into account their rendezvous during Abe's first term as prime minister in 2006-2007. During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, Russian-Japanese summits were not held due to his pronounced negative attitude towards any territorial concessions to Japan.

Returning to the Kremlin in 2012, Vladimir Putin called for a mutually acceptable solution to the territorial issue. Inspired by this call, Shinzo Abe paid an official visit to Moscow in April 2013. In the then signed joint statement of the leaders of the two states, according to established tradition, only a peace treaty was mentioned, and the territorial problem was not mentioned at all. However, in fact, it launched the next stage in the search for a solution to this main problem in bilateral relations.

Significant milestones of this stage were the arrival of Shinzo Abe - the only leader of the G2014 member countries - to the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2016, as well as a meeting with Putin in the same city in May XNUMX. The Sochi summit was marked by Abe's "new approach" to relations with Russia. It consists in proposing an eight-point plan for economic cooperation between Japan and Russia, which, according to the prime minister's plans, should create a favorable atmosphere for concluding a peace treaty between the two countries. In other words, the expectation is that in the difficult economic situation in Russia caused by the economic sanctions of the West, Moscow will appreciate Tokyo's "broad gesture" and will make concessions on the territorial issue.

It should be noted that Abe ventured into rapprochement with the Russian President despite the obvious discontent of Washington and Brussels, who believe that Japan is out of step with the rest of the developed Western countries, which expose Moscow to economic and other ostracism for Crimea, Ukraine, Salisbury and its other "sins" ... This forces Abe to maneuver in attempts to find a "golden mean" in Japan's relations with Russia and the West, both in terms of economic sanctions and an endless series of her criticism and condemnation. A manifestation of this maneuvering was Putin's return visit to Japan in December 2016, although it was originally scheduled for 2014, but was repeatedly postponed by the Japanese side against the backdrop of the West's anti-Russian campaign for the reunification of Crimea with Russia. True, the Japanese side nevertheless tried to lower the status of this visit, presenting it as friendly, not official.

The increasing frequency of meetings between the leaders of Russia and Japan testifies to the desire of Abe, together with Putin, to solve the territorial problem and sign a peace treaty between the two countries. It is no secret that it is on Putin that the Japanese prime minister is placing his personal stake, believing that only he, in the conditions prevailing in Russia, is capable of making concessions on territories. Abe's hopes are reinforced by repeated statements by the Russian president that the absence of a peace treaty in relations between the two countries is "an abnormal situation." This moment, as already noted, was reflected in the statement following the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister to Moscow in 2013. However, so far, the approaches of Putin and Abe to the elimination of this "abnormality", despite their friendly relations, are directly opposite. 

This was once again clearly demonstrated at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September this year. There, in response to an ardent appeal from "his friend" Shinzo, to show determination and sign a peace treaty, Putin immediately offered to do so before the end of the year, but without any preconditions. And the need for a subsequent solution to the territorial problem, according to the President of Russia, could be reflected in the text of the document itself. The unanimous answer on the part of Japanese politicians, including Abe himself, experts and the media, was the standard that it was necessary, on the contrary, first to resolve the territorial issue, and only then conclude a peace treaty. This reaction only reaffirmed the assumption that Japan does not need the treaty itself, but the four South Kuril Islands.

The era of territorial negotiations between Putin and Abe, which began in April 2013, continues to this day, since both politicians remain at the helm of power in their countries until 2024 and 2021, respectively. As it was shown above, the dynamics of these negotiations is also growing rapidly. At a meeting on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Singapore on November 14, the two leaders once again agreed to expedite negotiations on a peace treaty based on the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration. It says, in particular, that the Soviet Union agrees to the transfer of the Habomai Islands and the Shikotan Island to Japan, however, that the actual transfer of these islands to Japan will be made after the conclusion of a peace treaty between the USSR and Japan. True, at a press conference there in Singapore, Putin repeated his statement that the declaration did not say on what basis these islands were to be transferred and under whose sovereignty they would remain. This interpretation by the Russian president of the 1956 declaration greatly perplexes Japanese politicians and experts, but does not bother the assertive prime minister. 

Just two weeks after the Singapore rendezvous, Putin and Abe met again, this time on the sidelines of the GXNUMX summit in Buenos Aires. In the Argentine capital, they have appointed special envoys to negotiate a peace treaty. On the Russian side, it was Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Igor Morgulov, on the Japanese side, First Deputy Foreign Minister of Japan Takeo Mori. And the negotiations themselves will be conducted under the leadership of the foreign ministers - Sergei Lavrov and Taro Kono, whom the leaders of both states will give direct instructions to. Putin and Abe called this diplomatic construct a new mechanism for negotiating a peace treaty. Although, what is new here is difficult to understand, since until now the listed diplomats were already the main negotiators on this treaty, or rather, on the territorial issue.

It can be assumed that the rise in the status of the negotiation process indicates a lack of real progress in bringing Moscow and Tokyo closer to the territorial issue, despite the permanent attempts of both sides to speed up this process. Ironically, this is not the first time Russia and Japan have agreed to accelerate peace talks. Thus, the "accelerating point" is contained in the Irkutsk declaration of 2001, signed by V. Putin and then Prime Minister of Japan Yoshiro Mori. It was also included in the aforementioned 2013 joint statement of Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe. However, as they say, “things are still there”.

Attempts to quickly move the "cart" of the territorial problem, including with the help of an agreement on joint economic activities of Russia and Japan on the disputed islands, are hampered by a whole range of issues accompanying this problem. They affect the fundamental national interests of both countries in the field of economy and security. Firstly, the transfer of even the Small Kuril Ridge to Japan (the Shikotan and Habomai Islands) will lead to a sharp expansion of the exclusive economic zone of Japan and, accordingly, the loss of Russia's huge reserves of mineral resources and seafood around this ridge. Secondly, serious damage will be done to Russia's security, since the possession of even only the islands of Habomai and Shchikotan will allow Japan and the United States to control the passage of submarines and other Russian warships from the Sea of ​​Okhotsk to the Pacific Ocean and back. Japanese experts themselves admit that for this, the Americans can install sonars on the seabed near Shikotan Island.

True, Prime Minister Abe promises that if the disputed islands are obtained, American military installations will not be located on them. However, there is strong doubt that this is possible without the consent of the United States, especially in the context of the current unprecedented aggravation of Russian-American relations. Recently, Washington made this clear to Moscow and Tokyo by sending its destroyer based in the Japanese city of Yokosuka to the Peter the Great Bay area, on the coast of which Vladivostok is located.

The desire to combine the upholding of their basic interests with finding a compromise on the territorial issue is expressed in the volatility of the formulations of Russia's approaches to this issue. This is evidenced by the refusal of Shinzo Abe from the currently prevailing strict demand in Japan to return all four northern islands in one package in favor of the "two plus alpha" formula. This formula, which, apparently, the famous politician Muneo Suzuki advised the prime minister, implies the transfer to Japanese sovereignty of two islands of the Lesser Kuril ridge (the Habomai group, for convenience, is considered one island) and simultaneous negotiations on the ownership of two other islands - Kunashir and Iturup.

For this maneuver, Shinzo Abe has been heavily criticized by conservative forces and most of the Japanese media. They even express fears that as a result, Japan will not get the two largest islands of its "northern territories". For example, Hiroshi Kimura, a well-known specialist in Russia, Honorary Professor of Hokkaido University, is sounding the alarm that the “two plus alpha” formula may turn into a “two minus alpha” formula for the country. True, Abe himself and his "right hand" - Secretary General of the Cabinet of Ministers Yoshihide Suga have repeatedly assured compatriots that in any case Tokyo will seek the return of all four islands.

However, at a recent press conference, Foreign Minister Taro Kono defiantly refused four times to comment on the statement made in Milan on December 7 by his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Japan's recognition of the results of World War II is necessary to continue negotiations on a peace treaty with Russia. This gave rise to suspicions among some Japanese observers of Abe's intention to move away from Japan's principled position on the territorial issue. Earlier, Abe himself, during the parliamentary hearings, avoided assessing the territorial problem, motivating his refusal with a desire not to complicate the situation for the Russian side in the negotiations on this problem.

In light of the lengthy conversations between Putin and Abe in private in Singapore and at other meetings, such a reaction of Abe and Kono to the questions of Japanese parliamentarians and journalists about the territorial problem gives rise to some Russian experts to assume that the Russian side is preparing to make some concessions on this issue.

However, the demand for recognition of the results of the war that ended more than 70 years ago, which was previously voiced by Russian leaders from time to time, is absolutely unacceptable for Tokyo, which believes that the Soviet Union seized the “northern territories” by force at the end of the war, and Russia is illegally occupying them. It is clear that Lavrov's words, uttered at the height of the acceleration of the peace talks, were a "cold shower" for the Japanese partners.

And on December 14, the official representative of the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova added her "tub of cold water" to it. She made a statement, unprecedented in post-Soviet times, that all diplomatic correspondence on this issue should be taken into account in negotiations with Japan on the conclusion of a peace treaty, including memoranda of the government of the Soviet Union dated January 27 and February 24, 1960. In connection with the conclusion in the same year of the Japanese-American security treaty providing for the deployment of American troops on Japanese territory, these notes effectively canceled the USSR's promise to transfer the islands of Habomai and Shikotan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. But it is quite obvious that Tokyo will not abandon its military alliance with Washington in the foreseeable future, and Japan's role as the main Asian support of the United States in the military confrontation with Russia will only grow.

There is no doubt that the requirements put forward in the statements of Lavrov and Zakharova will not be accepted by Tokyo under any circumstances. Therefore, it would seem that after them it would be possible to put an end to Japan's hopes to receive in one form or another the southern Kuriles, or at least part of them in the foreseeable future. However, to all appearances, nobody is going to interrupt the Russian-Japanese epic of territorial negotiations, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has his own scenario in it. It consists in persuading Putin to sign a framework agreement on the territorial issue and a peace treaty in the coming months during the planned official visit of the Russian president to Japan in June 2019. 

For Abe, it is extremely necessary, in refutation of domestic critics, to present the successes of his course in solving the territorial problem with Russia in the elections to the upper house of parliament in the summer of the same year. And his ultimate goal is to achieve the signing of a peace treaty with Russia, finally solving this problem during the remaining three years of his tenure as prime minister. Thus, Shinzo Abe really wants to remain in the history of the country as a politician who was able to solve a problem that no one could cope with for over 70 years before him. This makes him, in spite of any obstacles, rush in territorial negotiations with Putin. Whether Abe's aspirations will come true, and what is the meaning for Russia of the current acceleration of the peace (territorial) negotiations with Japan, we have to find out in the coming year.
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