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Russia and Japan: Acceleration to Peace?

Why does Abe increase the pace of territorial negotiations with Putin

2018 was a year full of Russian-Japanese negotiations on the territorial issue. It lies in Tokyo’s claims on the four southern Kuril Islands, which went to the USSR / Russia following the results of the Second World War. Japan considers them its northern territories and demands to return. The problem, according to Tokyo, is the main obstacle to the conclusion of a peace treaty between Russia and Japan. These negotiations are conducted not only by diplomats of the two countries, but also personally by their leaders. And 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
Particularly active in the territorial negotiations is the current Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe. Contrary to the principle of reciprocal exchange of visits by top leaders of states adopted in international affairs, he twice visited Russia in the outgoing 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, opened the cross years of the culture of Russia and Japan.

It has already become known that in January next year, Abe will again “look into” Russia on the way to the next Davos forum. In addition, he hopes that “in relation” to the G20 summit (G 20) 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 World Judo 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, given their rendezvous during the first term of Abe in 2006-2007. During the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian-Japanese summits were not carried out due to its pronounced negative attitude to any territorial concessions to Japan.

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

The milestones of this stage were the arrival of Shinzo Abe, the only leader of the G7 member countries, to the opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in 2014, as well as a meeting with Putin in the same city in May 2016. The Sochi summit was marked by Abe’s “new approach” to relations with Russia. It consists of a proposal of a eight-point plan for Japan’s economic cooperation with Russia, which, according to the Prime Minister’s plans, should create a favorable atmosphere for the conclusion of a peace treaty between the two countries. In other words, the calculation is made on the fact that, given the difficult economic situation in Russia caused by the economic sanctions of the West, Moscow will appreciate Tokyo’s “wide gesture” and make concessions on the territorial issue.

It should be noted that Abe ventured to rapprochement with the Russian president despite the apparent discontent of Washington and Brussels, who believe that Japan is not keeping pace with the other developed Western countries, exposing Moscow to economic and other ostracism for the Crimea, Ukraine, Salisbury and its other “sins” . This forces Abe to maneuver in attempts to find a “middle ground” in Japan’s relations with Russia and the West, both in terms of economic sanctions and an endless range of her criticism and condemnations. A manifestation of this maneuvering was Putin's return visit to Japan in December 2016, although initially it was scheduled for 2014 year, but was repeatedly postponed by the Japanese side against the background of the anti-Russian campaign of the West about 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 growing frequency of meetings between the leaders of Russia and Japan demonstrates Abe’s desire to solve the territorial problem with Putin and sign a peace treaty between the two countries. It is no secret that the Japanese prime minister makes a personal bet on Putin, believing that he alone is capable of making concessions in the territories under the conditions prevailing in Russia. The hopes of Abe are reinforced by the repeated statements of the Russian president that the absence of a peace treaty in relations between the two countries is an “abnormal position”. This point, as already noted, was reflected in a statement following the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Moscow in 2013. True, for now, Putin and Abe’s approaches to eliminating this “abnormality”, despite their friendly relations, are just the opposite.

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

The era of the territorial negotiations between Putin and Abe, which began in April 2013, continues to this day, since both policies remain at the helm of their own countries until 2024 and 2021, respectively. As was shown above, the dynamics of these negotiations is steeply increasing. At a meeting on the margins of the East Asian Summit in Singapore 14 in November, both leaders once again agreed to speed up negotiations on a peace treaty based on the Soviet-Japanese joint declaration 1956 of the year. It says, in particular, that the Soviet Union agrees to the transfer of Japan to the Habomai Islands and Shikotan Islands, however, that the actual transfer of these islands to Japan will take place 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 does not say on what basis these islands are to be transferred, and under whose sovereignty they will remain. Such an interpretation by the Russian president of the 1956 declaration of the year greatly puzzles Japanese politicians and experts, but does not embarrass the assertive prime minister.

After only two weeks after the rendezvous in Singapore, Putin and Abe met again, this time on the margins of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires. In the capital of Argentina, they appointed special representatives at the negotiations on the conclusion of a peace treaty. From the Russian side, they became Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Morgulov, from the Japanese side - First Deputy Foreign Minister of Japan Takeo Mori. And the negotiations themselves will be conducted under the direction of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs, Sergey Lavrov and Taro Kono, to whom the leaders of both states will give direct instructions. Putin and Abe called this diplomatic structure a new negotiating mechanism for a peace treaty. Although, what is the novelty here, it is difficult to understand, because until now the listed diplomats were the main negotiators on this treaty, or rather, on the territorial issue.

It can be assumed that the increase in the status of the negotiation process indicates the absence of real progress in bringing together the positions of Moscow and Tokyo on the territorial problem, despite the constant attempts of both sides to speed up this process. Ironically, Russia and Japan are not the first to agree on speeding up peace talks. Thus, the "accelerator point" is contained in the Irkutsk statement 2001 of the year, signed by V.Putin and then Prime Minister of Japan Yoshiro Mori. He was included in the aforementioned joint statement of Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe 2013 of the year. However, as they say, "but things are there."

Attempts to quickly move from the place of "augmentation" 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 related to this problem. They affect the fundamental national interests of both countries in the field of economy and security. First, the transfer of Japan, even the Small Kuril Ridge (Shikotan and Habomai Islands) will lead to a sharp expansion of the exclusive economic zone of Japan and, accordingly, Russia’s loss of huge reserves of mineral resources and seafood around this ridge. Secondly, the security of Russia will be seriously damaged, as the possession even of the islands of Habomai and Shchikotan will allow Japan and the USA 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, Americans can install sonars on the seabed near Shikotan Island.

True, Prime Minister Abe promises that if they receive disputed islands, American military facilities will not be placed on them. However, it is highly doubtful that this is possible without the consent of the United States, especially in the conditions of the current unprecedented aggravation of Russian-American relations. A few days ago, Washington made it clear to Moscow and Tokyo, having sent its destroyer based in the Japanese city of Yokosuka to the area of ​​Peter the Great Bay, on the bank of which Vladivostok is located.

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

For this maneuver, Shinzo Abe is heavily criticized by the conservative forces and most Japanese media. They even express fears that, as a result, Japan will not receive the two largest islands of its “northern territories”. Thus, a well-known expert in Russia, an honorary professor at Hokkaido University Hiroshi Kimura is sounding the alarm that the “two plus alpha” formula can 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 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 four pointedly refused to comment on the statement made in Milan on December 7 in Milan by his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov that Japan’s recognition of the outcome of World War II is necessary to continue negotiations on a peace treaty with Russia. This has caused some Japanese observers to suspect that Abe’s intention to move away from Japan’s principled position on the territorial issue. Earlier, during the parliamentary hearings, Abe himself avoided assessing the territorial problem, motivating his refusal by not wanting to complicate the situation on the Russian side for negotiations on this issue.

In the light of Putin’s and Abe’s lengthy conversations face to face in Singapore and at other meetings, Abe’s and Kono’s reaction to questions from Japanese parliamentarians and journalists about the territorial problem gives some Russian experts speculation that the Russian side is preparing to make some concessions on this issue.

However, the requirement to recognize the results of the war that 70 ended more than a few years ago, which was previously voiced by Russian leaders from time to time, is absolutely unacceptable for Tokyo, who believes that the Soviet Union seized the “northern territories” at the end of the war and Russia illegally occupied them. It is clear that the words of Lavrov, uttered in the midst of the acceleration of the peace talks, were a cold shower for the Japanese partners.

And on December 12, the official representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia, Maria Zakharova, added his “cold water tub” to him. She made an unprecedented post-Soviet statement that negotiations with Japan to conclude a peace treaty should take into account all diplomatic correspondence on this issue, including memoranda of the government of the Soviet Union of January 14 and February 27 of 24. In connection with the conclusion of the Japanese-American security treaty the same year, providing for the deployment of American troops on Japanese territory, these notes actually annulled the Soviet promise to transfer the islands of Habomai and Shikotan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. But it is absolutely clear that Tokyo in the foreseeable future will not abandon the military alliance with Washington, and the role of Japan as the main Asian support of the United States in a power confrontation with Russia will only increase.

There is no doubt that the demands made 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 the hopes of Japan to receive in one form or another the southern Kurils, or at least part of them in the foreseeable future. However, apparently, nobody is going to interrupt the Russian-Japanese epic of territorial negotiations, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has his own script in it. It is that in the coming months to persuade Putin to sign the framework agreement on the territorial issue and the peace treaty already during the planned official visit of the Russian president to Japan in June 2019 of the year.

For Abe, it is imperative, in denial of domestic critics, to present the success of his course in solving the territorial problem with Russia in elections to the upper house of parliament in the summer of that 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 had managed to cope with for more than 70 years. This makes him, in spite of any obstacles, hurry in the territorial negotiations with Putin. Will Abe's aspirations come true, and what is the point for Russia of the current acceleration of peaceful (territorial) negotiations with Japan, we have to find out already in the coming year.
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