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Russia-Japan: summit meetings continue

Putin and Abe discussed the pressing problems of bilateral relations

Russia-Japan: summit meetings continue
Photo: TVC

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
In late May, Russian President Vladimir Putin, along with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and French President Emmanuel Macron, took part in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. And shortly before that, Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Putin in Sochi. A visit to Russia by the heads of the three leading Western countries and their informal communication with the Russian president marked an important trend in the gradual exit of our country from that isolation in the international arena, the main engines of which are the Anglo-Saxon powers.

The communication between Putin and Abe in St. Petersburg and Moscow was a notable event in Russian-Japanese relations. This was the 21st meeting of the two leaders, taking into account their rendezvous during Abe's first term as prime minister in 2006-2007. In addition to active participation in the forum, the Russian and Japanese leaders held intensive personal negotiations, and in addition, they met with representatives of the business circles of both countries and opened the cross years of Russian culture in Japan and Japan in Russia at the Bolshoi Theater. Important topics of talks between Putin and Abe were topical issues of bilateral political relations, economic interaction between the two countries, as well as the situation on the Korean Peninsula.  

As expected, the focus of the negotiations was the territorial issue. It consists in Tokyo's claims to the four islands of the southern Kuriles, which were transferred to the USSR following the Second World War. True, unlike the media and experts from Russia and Japan, the leaders of the two countries delicately prefer to use the euphemism “peace treaty” instead of the term “territorial dispute”. The basis for such delicacy, apparently, is the understanding that the Japanese side cannot imagine concluding this treaty without solving the territorial problem on terms acceptable to it.

A prelude to the May discussion by Putin and Abe of the prospects for concluding a peace treaty was made on the eve of the St. our country in accordance with the agreements between the allied powers, as well as their Russian legal personality during the post-war years. "

The invariability of Russia's principled position on the territorial issue led to the fact that no progress was made on it at the talks between Putin and Abe. This can be judged by the evasive phraseology of the two leaders at their final joint press conference. At it, the President of the Russian Federation, in particular, said: “During the negotiations, we discussed issues related to the peace treaty. We consider it important to patiently continue the search for a solution that would meet the strategic interests of both Russia and Japan, and would be accepted by the peoples of both countries. "

The Prime Minister of Japan, for his part, spoke in more detail on the most difficult problem of Russian-Japanese relations: “A year and a half ago in Nagato (I remember it was snowing there), President Putin and I talked face to face, and then declared our sincere readiness to solve the problem of concluding a peace treaty, which gave a start to work in new directions. "

Obviously, it is on the Russian president that Abe is placing his personal stake, believing that only Putin, given the current conditions in Russia, is capable of making territorial concessions to Japan. This message is confirmed by the following statement by the prime minister at the same press conference: “As I have already noted, in the city of Nagato in my homeland, President Putin and I agreed to express our sincere position and strive to conclude a peace treaty. It is this will, our will, the power of will that opens a new path for relations between Japan and Russia. Therefore, together we once again made sure of our determination to consistently move forward towards the conclusion of a peace treaty with a new approach. " And further: “The issue of a peace treaty that has not been signed for more than 70 years is not easy to solve, but in our generation we want to put an end to this problem. This is the main task of our plan. "

The fact that the Japanese prime minister is pinning his territorial hopes on the Russian president is not concealed by the Japanese officialdom - the Japan Times, which writes: “Abe is betting on Putin, who secured himself another six-year term in the presidential elections in March, in order to accept the landmark judgment on the disputed islands that lie next to Hokkaido ”.

According to the calculations of the Japanese prime minister, it is precisely Japan's economic cooperation with Russia that should open the way to concluding a peace treaty with it. This is the essence of the "new approach" he mentioned to relations with our country. He announced it two years ago in May 2016 at a meeting with Putin in Sochi. Then Shinzo Abe proposed to Vladimir Putin a well-known plan for economic cooperation, including the development of the Far East, from eight points. Since then, representatives of the two countries have been actively working to fill this plan with concrete content, although, apparently, things are moving slowly, and so far no breakthrough projects have been announced within the framework of the said plan.  

This fact was actually recognized by Putin at a meeting in St. Petersburg with the business community of Russia and Japan: “We have received with great interest the initiatives of the Prime Minister of Japan, Mr. Abe, to develop Russian-Japanese relations in eight priority areas, and on this basis we proposed our plan of 80 priority projects. Some of them have already started to develop. " The Russian president also noted the modest level of economic cooperation between Russia and Japan, saying that Japanese investments in the Russian economy do not exceed $ 18 billion, and the bilateral trade turnover last year amounted to only about $ 86 billion, despite the fact that, for example, with China he Russia has reached XNUMX billion.

The Japanese leader, for his part, was inspired to paint bright prospects for economic partnership between Russia and Japan. So, in a conversation with Putin on May 25, Abe shared with him his dreams of the times when a peace treaty will be concluded between the two countries. He said: "The Arctic Ocean, the Bering Sea, the North Pacific Ocean and the Sea of ​​Japan - all these regions will be connected by the sea road of peace and prosperity." In this case, the Sea of ​​Japan will become "a huge logistics highway," he said. It is not clear, however, why these dreams cannot be realized before the conclusion of a peace treaty, if they meet the pressing economic needs of both countries.  

And at a meeting with Russian and Japanese businessmen Abe, in particular, said: "Japan-Russia relations have great potential. In order to realize this potential, exactly two years ago I proposed to President Putin a plan of cooperation from eight points ... We already have more than 130 projects that appeared within the framework of the cooperation plan; half of them have already acquired real features and started implementation. " As to how the priority projects mentioned by Putin and 80 projects of Abe will be combined, we, apparently, have to learn in the near future.

An active exchange of views on the prospects for economic cooperation took place in St. Petersburg at the Russia-Japan Business Dialogue panel discussion, in which Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe took part. During the discussion, specific areas of business interaction between the two countries were named, such as energy, automotive, urban economy, transport infrastructure, digital economy, increasing labor productivity and others.

The participants in the discussion emphasized the importance of bilateral cooperation in the field of medicine, including in the modernization of departmental clinics of the Russian Railways, as well as in the fight against oncology. In their opinion, this should contribute to an increase in life expectancy in Russia. The latter seems to be very relevant for the country, including in light of the intention of the world leader in the production and sale of tobacco products, Japan Tobacco, announced at the discussion, to invest a gigantic amount of more than $ 1,5 billion in the purchase of Donskoy Tabak.  

Taking this opportunity, Japanese businessmen expressed a number of claims and wishes against the Russian side. So, the chairman of the Japan-Russian Committee for Economic Cooperation of the Federation of Economic Organizations of Japan (Nippon Keidanren) Teruo Asada, noting that Japanese business is not very active in such projects in the Far East as the TOP and the free port of Vladivostok, stated the need for improvement in the region infrastructure, extension of preferences in the tax system and other measures.

An important part of economic cooperation between Russia and Japan should be the joint economic activities of the two countries in the four disputed Tokyo South Kuril Islands. The agreement was reached by Putin and Abe during the visit of the Russian president to Japan in December 2016. To date, five areas have been identified: aquaculture, hothouse vegetable growing, wind power, garbage processing and so-called package tourism. Putin and Abe agreed that this year the Japanese delegation, consisting of officials and businessmen, will visit the island for the third time in order to study on-site the possibility of implementing joint projects.

However, the stumbling block on this path remains the question of on whose legal basis to carry out such activities. The Japanese side insists that it should not be carried out on the basis of Russian laws, for this would mean Japan's recognition of Russia's sovereignty over the islands, which Tokyo considers its northern territories. To carry out such activities, Tokyo proposes to create a kind of special legal regime that would not prejudice the sovereignty over the islands of either side. Apparently, it was not possible to bypass this obstacle during the May talks between Putin and Abe, although Japanese experts in this respect pinned great hopes on them. True, the leaders of Russia and Japan have agreed on a visa-free trip to the islands by air charter of their former Japanese residents in order to visit the graves of their ancestors, as was the case last year.  

This news was positively assessed in Japan, however, the lack of progress in resolving the territorial issue, as well as the results of Abe's visit to Russia in general, were met with disappointment by the Japanese media. Thus, according to the newspaper "Hokkaido Shimbun", the former residents of the disputed islands at their rally expressed regret over the lack of progress in returning Japan to the "four northern islands". The liberal newspaper Asahi Shimbun also notes that at the talks between Putin and Abe, not even a hint of a prospective settlement of the long-standing bilateral dispute over the northern territories was found.

A lengthy editorial entitled "Benefits from Russian-Japanese cooperation should lead to progress in territorial negotiations" was published by Japan's largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun. It reads, in particular: “The Prime Minister at the summit in December 2016 tried to develop a“ road map ”for the solution of the territorial range. However, the reality is that since then there has been no smooth progress, as we would like ... The two countries are at an impasse regarding the "special system" on which joint economic activity will be built, since Russia persistently applies its domestic legislation to this activity ... Acceptance of Russia's approval means recognition of its sovereignty over the northern territories, something that Japan cannot accept. "

A number of publications criticize Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for his policy of a "golden mean" between Russia and the Western countries imposing sanctions and other means of pressure on it in an attempt to obtain territorial concessions from Moscow. In this regard, the Japan Times unequivocally states: "The outcome of the recent negotiations between the Japanese and Russian leaders has reinforced the view that Tokyo is trapped in a constant balancing act in its relations with Moscow, which is facing growing hostility with the West."

The same newspaper publishes an analytical article by James Brown, assistant professor of political science at Temple University in Tokyo and specialist in Russian-Japanese relations, under the characteristic title "Abe's trip to Russia highlights his foreign policy failures." Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe returned largely empty-handed from a four-day visit to St. Petersburg and Moscow, including a disappointing summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the publication said. The expert believes that Abe's latest trip to Russia was conceived as the culmination of his so-called "new approach", an initiative of 2016 that aims to provide economic incentives to ensure progress in resolving the long-standing territorial dispute between the two countries over the southern Kuril Islands (Northern Territories in Japan). The timing of the visit was also seen as favorable, as it followed shortly after Putin's re-election as Russian president in March. With this presumably Putin's last term, the Abe administration believed that he might now be more inclined to consider unpopular territorial concessions.

However, says James Brown, the Japanese leader has never been able to reach an agreement on the legal framework for joint economic activities on the disputed islands. This, according to Brown, along with the scandals in which Shinzo Abe was involved, will contribute to a further drop in his rating and calls into question the prospects for re-election the chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in the elections in September this year and, accordingly, the extension of his stay in the Prime Minister's chair for the third record term.

True, Abe himself does not think so and plans to again take part in the same month in the next Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok on September 11-13. There he intends to continue the dialogue with Putin on topical problems of relations between Russia and Japan.
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