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16.05.2013 г.

In Search of a Japanese Deng Xiaoping

Dmitry Streltsov
Doctor of History, Head of the Department of Oriental Studies of the MGIMO University

In the third week of February, Moscow received the former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshirō Mori. The purpose of Mori’s visit, who also delivered a personal letter to Vladimir Putin from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, was to coordinate the substantive part of a future official visit by the Prime Minister to Russia scheduled for April-May 2013. However, observers were keen to learn not only about the official outcome of the visit, but also whether one might expect a further positive shift in Russian-Japanese relations.

A Visit Intended to Soothe Bilateral Relations

Shinzō Abe entrusted this delicate mission to a person with a long-standing, friendly relationship with Putin. Yoshirō Mori is the only Japanese public figure with whom Putin has succeeded in establishing an informal style of communication: despite their difference in ages, they started to tutoyer one another following a meeting thirteen years ago, when Mori headed the Japanese cabinet. Relations between Putin and Mori, who have met a total of fifteen times, evoke an atmosphere of the casual meetings during the time of the “great friendship between Boris and Ryu” (Boris Yeltsin and Ryutaro Hashimoto) in the late 1990s.

In contrast to other partners for Russia, it is, on the whole, rather difficult to find a figure in Japan who could participate in informal consultations with Russian leaders. Such consultations tend to be genuinely trusting and frank and address the most sensitive issues in bilateral relations (territorial issues being undoubtedly among them). Mori happens to be one of the few public figures appropriate for such an intermediary mission. Indeed, it was with Mori that Putin signed the Irkutsk Declaration (2001), which proved to be the apex of Russian-Japanese political relations during the first decade of the 21st century in terms of facilitating convergence between the two countries’ positions on the issue of territorial demarcation. In this sense, Mori is associated with the biggest success achieved by Putin in terms of his personal diplomacy vis-a-vis Japan.

In this context, the meeting between Putin and Mori, apart from anything else and after an “exchange of niceties”, had the purpose of soothing the depressing atmosphere that has dominated bilateral relations over the past five years.

Of no less significance is the fact that Mori is highly regarded in Japan, both with respect to his accomplishments as a politician and in line with the Confucian tradition of reverence towards an elderly and wise person. He holds no posts in the current government, nor is he an MP (Mori did not run in past elections due to his advanced age). The Japanese politician in his public statements in Moscow himself stated that he was now “at the onset of the later half of the senior age” (in Japan, the senior age consists of two parts – before and after 75 years of age). His advanced age and reputation as the “wise old man” allow Mori to step back from the dogmatism typical of Japanese politicians vis-à-vis Russia and brush aside considerations of “political expediency” in spite of his status as the Japanese premier’s personal envoy.

Importantly, among Japanese “heavy-weight” political figures, Mori is considered to be an expert on Russian affairs. He has acquired a reputation as someone who has his own vision on how to address the infamous territorial issue. In January 2013, before he left for Moscow, Mori spoke on national television and suggested resolving the territorial demarcation issue based on a “3+1” formula. According to this formula, Russia would retain the largest of the islands, Iturup, and return to Japan the other three. Recognising the divisiveness and ambiguity of this proposal, whose author himself labelled “a realistic approach”, it is important to appreciate the fact that Mori was effectively challenging publicly the official position of Tokyo which has allowed for no compromises.

During their meeting on February 21st, the parties reaffirmed their commitment to the 2001 Irkutsk Declaration. It states, in particular, that the 1956 USSR-Japan Joint Declaration could serve as a basis for peace negotiations. However, this meeting did not lead to any specific arrangements that were made public.

How should we assess the outcome of this meeting? One of the objectives of Mori’s visit was to attempt to demonstrate to the Japanese public the degree of effort that his country’s government was taking to address the territorial issue. Obviously, no “breakthroughs” on territorial demarcation between Russia and Japan are currently possible because the positions of the two countries are irreconcilably antagonistic. Both Moscow and Tokyo are perfectly aware that this issue is not resolvable in the near future, even with the deep mutual affinity between the two leaders. Mori’s visit showed that both parties can agree to a kind of gentlemanly agreement intended to lead bilateral diplomacy out of the dead end that was the result of the lack of options for the bilateral agenda, with the irresolvable territorial issue at its centre.

Russia has done its best to demonstrate not the differences but the commonality in the positions of the two parties, showing its highest appreciation of the resumption of the political dialogue on this issue. Talking to the former Japanese prime minister, Putin compared Russia and Japan to contestants at a judo tournament, who, instead of engaging each other in a fight, stand as if frozen on opposite sides of the tatami. The Russian president referred to this situation, with the two countries failing to agree on a peace treaty, as “abnormal”.

In his lecture to students at the Moscow Foreign Relations Institute, Mori talked of the need to find a mutually acceptable approach to the borders issue. Deliberating on the meaning of “hikiwake” (“draw”) used by the Russian president a year ago to describe the approach to the territorial issue, the Japanese visitor stated that it would be wrong to hope either for the satisfaction of all the demands made by Japan or for the preservation of the current status quo.

What makes Russia and Japan move towards each other?

There are a number of systemic factors that are nudging the Russian and Japanese parties towards each other. It is not that these factors were not present before, but their presence has become particularly tangible in the last year or two, given major changes in the geopolitical and economic environment across the world.

From Russia’s perspective, the unfolding “oil shale revolution”, together with an Eastern focus in the Russian energy policies, requires a change in the appreciation of Japan as a prospective market for Russian energy resources. It is clear to Russia that now that Japan has had to give up its atomic energy after the natural and man-made disaster of 11 March 2011, it needs Russian oil and gas as never before. Russia requires a long-term and predictable partner, among other things, because of its acute need for Japanese investment and technologies to provide for a modernisation breakthrough in Russia’s Far East. In December 2012, Russia commissioned the second stage of the East Siberia – Pacific Ocean oil pipeline; it is to be followed by a second LNG facility in Vladivostok to be built with Japanese capital (planned for completion in 2018).

Long-term investment in oil and gas infrastructure requires a favourable political climate. What is also apparent to Russia is that its relations with Japan must improve if it is to achieve a more balanced economic and political strategy in Asia, in particular in the context of the economic and military rise of China.

Equally obvious are Japan’s motives. Facing more than a confrontational reaction from Beijing about the Senkaku Islands, Japan has found itself in a totally different security paradigm. The novelty of this paradigm is implicit in the fact that even the security treaty does not offer Japan full comfort despite reassurances by US officials. Of relevance is also the fact that, in comparison to other partners in Japan’s territorial disputes, Russia acts like “a good cop”. In contrast to the aggressive Chinese or “rowdy” Koreans, who took the liberty of demanding apologies from the Japanese emperor and sending back, unopened, a letter from the Japanese Prime Minister to the South Korean president, Russia has behaved itself more than appropriately, refraining from any attacks on Japan. In this light, the resumption of the dialogue over territorial issue with Moscow, even given its utter lack of prospects, allows Tokyo to overcome its psychologically well-grounded delusion of being a “besieged fortress”. In addition, the opening of negotiations gives the new cabinet good reason to report some progress (compared to a situation of a deep-freeze), which, in turn, helps to boost its ratings before the oncoming election to the upper chamber of parliament.

Also of relevance is energy cooperation. Russian oil and gas help Tokyo diversify its suppliers and thus enhance national energy security. Currently, Russian fuel, which accounts for about 10 per cent of the Japanese market, is well poised to grow. However, we should not overestimate the on-going trend towards Russia’s larger presence in Japan since high dependence on Russia supplies is clearly viewed as an impingement on the country’s national security. Japan is currently debating the acceptable level of market share for Russia: proponents of lower dependence on Middle East supplies are opposed by those who insist that imports from Russia should not exceed 15 per cent.

However, there is room for more intensified efforts, and both countries are well aware of this. So far, we have witnessed only tactical steps towards each other, made as part of “preventive diplomacy”. The logical question then is what kind of strategy both countries should pursue next to break the deadlock.

Moscow’s signal was widely misinterpreted in Japan

As a result of policies aimed at “upholding national interests” that Japan has pursued for many decades, practically no Japanese politician can master enough audacity to openly recognize that the territorial issue cannot be resolved in real terms under the scenario currently supported by the Japanese side. This appears obvious from numerous media comment on the outcome of Mori’s visit to Moscow. Local newspapers, attuned to general public sentiment, urge the government “to keep pressing on” irrespective of long awaited negotiations. Kobe Shimbun, in its editorial, insists that the “draw” formula proposed by the Russian president means that “Russia, at the very least, has revised its tough position on Japan in favour of rapprochement…There is no doubting the fact that the true motivation for Russians is their desire to resolve this issue by returning the two islands,” claims the newspaper. “The history of Japan and past negotiations have taught us that Japan should not passively follow the route suggested by Russia.”

Positive changes in the atmosphere of Japanese-Russian relations are perceived by many – erroneously – as being the result of concessions that Russians have made thanks to the “hard line” pursued by Japan. There are frequent suggestions to “put pressure” on Moscow and make it agree to the Japanese side of the bargain. There is also a widespread opinion that the Japanese concession in turn to the “draw” formula should be to agree to a postponement, even a lengthy one, of the return of Kunashir and Iturup islands to Japan. But the two other islands should be handed over at once, together with the recognition of Japan’s sovereignty over all four islands. Another option under discussion is to get the two islands back immediately and starting negotiating about the other two islands at once.

Following a Deng Xiaoping way?

Under these circumstances, it would make more sense to follow the way proposed by Deng Xiaoping in 1978. For the sake of good relations with Japan, he proposed leaving the resolution of territorial disputes over Senkaku Islands to future generations which, as he put it, “would have more wisdom.” A formula like that would openly recognise the complete impossibility of bridging the gap between the parties on the territorial issue under current conditions, and propose a kind of gentlemen’s agreement on the following conditions: Russia would complete a radical demilitarisation of the Southern Kuril Islands, and top Russian officials would refrain from visiting the islands, whereas the Japanese government will cease any actions that increased interest in the “northern territories” (public pronouncements by public officials which might unleash passions again and official support for various ceremonies, including those traditionally conducted on the “northern territories’ day”). As part of their agreement, both parties could then develop all those positive things proposed over the past two and a half decades, including visa-free exchanges and regional cooperation projects. Any attempts to draw public attention to the territorial issue would then be met with straightforward and clear clarifications by both governments that the issue cannot be resolved “at this moment in time”, in the hope that future generations would possibly be “wiser”.

Implementation of this kind of scenario is fraught with many issues, and it may, on the face of it, appear to be a fantasy. Japan must produce its own Deng Xiaoping, a wise and respected political leader, who would have enough daring to abstract himself from the immediate political considerations and think about the strategic development of relations with Russia. In the meantime, virtually all members of today’s political establishment in Japan have to conform to the requirements of the pre-election cycle and the need to be “liked” by voters. Also, the country has a fairly powerful clan in the northern territories: a community of politicians, public figures, observers, businessmen and local officials with vested interests in keeping the territorial issue “warmed up”. The government budget allocates fairly large amounts to support propaganda linked to the northern territories movement, while some municipalities in Hokkaido, closest to the disputed islands, depend heavily on state subsidies for northern territories development. Suffice it to say that the fairly small Cabinet of Ministers of Japan (not more than 20 members) has a permanent position of the Minister for Okinawa and northern territories.

However, there is no alternative to breaking the deadlock. If negotiations stutter and fail while Abe’s government is trying to address election difficulties, it would propel Russian-Japanese relations back again, undermining essential national interests both in Japan and in Russia.

09 april 2013

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