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Streltsov Dmitry, Japan: Where Is the Dialogue with Russia Headed? Печать E-mail
30.11.2012 г.
Dmitry Streltzov

Russo-Japanese relations are clearly on hold. Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s visit to Moscow was canceled on November 8 at Russia’s request. It had been scheduled for late December. However, surprisingly little official information has been released concerning the postponement. It is hard to take seriously the explanations in the media that say the visit was canceled because of Putin’s “busy diplomatic schedule” or an “old sports injury.” Also intriguing was the fact that after the Japanese reports appeared, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said the Foreign Ministry had “no information” about the visit’s cancellation, and that the news reports needed to be double checked.

The early elections Noda announced on November 16 derailed the entire planning schedule for the Russian-Japanese summit, which was approved during the APEC summit in September 2012. It became clear that a new Japanese minister would be making the trip to Moscow.

Both Russia and Japan have become less interested in their partner. Two factors have contributed to that.

First, the two countries have different incentives for doing business with each other, and that has hindered the political dialogue, including at the highest level. It is no secret that Japan mainly wants to move the notorious territorial issue off dead center. No matter who the new prime minister is, whether he comes from the DPJ, the LDP or some other party, a positive dynamic in negotiations on the Northern Territories is the only thing that can give him a boost as far as relations with Russia are concerned.

Meanwhile, Russia has not made immediate progress on the territorial issue a goal. For Moscow, the important thing is just to resume the negotiations. Many hope they will stabilize the political atmosphere surrounding bilateral ties. Russia considers it vital that the parties work towards establishing good relations and fostering economic ties, cross-border cooperation, etc. in parallel with peace treaty negotiations. Russia’s leaders have repeatedly stressed that an issue as delicate as the territorial problem can only be solved in an atmosphere of mutual trust, and that requires a long time to develop. It could take several generations.

Evidently, both sides are well aware that a mutually acceptable formula for solving the territorial problem is a near impossibility at this stage. However, the lack of visible progress in the negotiations, which is inevitable given that the two sides have diametrically opposed motives, coupled with the heightened sensitivity of Japan’s political leaders to fluctuations in their own public’s opinion of them, could ratchet up the tension. Tokyo will again accuse Moscow of “intransigence,” and Moscow will blame Tokyo for its “unwillingness to recognize the postwar status quo.” To decisively overcome the “Groundhog Day” syndrome and escape the vicious circle, we need to focus on things that bring our countries together, not put them on the opposite sides of barricades — a dialogue on energy, economic cooperation, solution of international security problems in Northeast Asia, etc.

Japan’s relations with its immediate neighbors — China and South Korea — are another factor in the cooling of Japanese-Russian ties. While the territorial disputes were growing worse this past summer and Japan was essentially isolated diplomatically, many in Japan began talking about a “renaissance” in the country’s relations with Russia: Medvedev, who was “unloved” by the Japanese, was replaced by the “pro-Japanese” Putin, who had announced his intention to solve the territorial issue by compromise (or hikiwake). After a long interval, preparations began for a high-level visit, and consultations got underway at the foreign ministry level. Many in the Japanese media saw the flurry of activity as “progress” towards resolving the territorial dispute.

However, the leadership change in the three Asian countries is rendering the territorial issue less acute. It has become a factor in the growth of nationalism, which is being actively exploited by the opposing factions in the struggle for power. After the leadership change in China and the upcoming December elections in Japan and South Korea, the need to demonstrate an uncompromising attitude in defending national interests on the territorial issue will inevitably take a backseat to the need for systematically expanding economic ties. A new thrust will be actively discouraged by the business community, which will do a good job of representing all of the economic costs associated with the increasing tension in terms of specific financial losses.

China has already shown it is concerned that the territorial dispute is interfering with the work of major international forums. For example, speaking at a press briefing on November 18 at the beginning of the East Asia Summit in Phnom Penh, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman made no mention of the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and when reporters asked him about the issue directly, he ended the briefing rather than answering the questions.

Stabilization of Sino-Japanese and Japanese-Korean relations would stop Tokyo from feeling as though it is under siege. That is fundamentally different from the state of affairs in Japanese-Russian relations, which are not on a sound economic footing and which progress by fits and starts, hostage to the political atmosphere. Here, euphoria will quickly give way to disappointment if Japan and Russia fail to find a common ground that can become a driving force in expanding bilateral relations.

Moscow understands that it is not too late to foster relations with Japan. Russia needs Japan both as a market for Russian hydrocarbons and as an important strategic partner that would help balance Russia’s entire diplomatic strategy system in the Asia-Pacific Region. Its willingness to discuss the notorious “territorial issue” is evidence of that. Much now will depend on Japan, which is facing a choice: whether to again sacrifice its relations with Moscow by reducing them to the unsophisticated formula of demanding “the immediate return of native Japanese territories,” or to demonstrate political wisdom and start building a political dialogue by focusing on the long-term historical perspective without regard for the immediate considerations of “political expediency.”


Dmitry Viktorovich Streltsov is head of the Department of Oriental Studies of the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (University) of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.

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