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01.04.2015 г.

Russo-Japanese Relations: What Should Be Done?

Streltsov Dmitry

Generally speaking, a comparatively low level of political relationship between Russia and Japan is not the result of the North territories issue. Rather it originated in the much deeper problem of the general public distrust in Japan towards Russia, its perception as a "Soviet-like" country. Actually it reflected the atmosphere of cold war preserved in East Asia in the post-bipolar world, the situation contrary to Europe.

Yet, in the first three decades of the 21 century, two additional factors contributed to the freezing vector. First, the two countries had different incentives for doing business with each other, and that has hindered the political dialogue, including at the highest level. The generally pragmatic Japanese political elite in its policy-making towards Russia remained hostage of the public sentiment which is driven by mostly the nationalistic rhetoric. Japan mainly wanted to move the notorious territorial issue off dead center.

Tokyo's policy of persistent revival of the "North territories issue" as a primary attention issue on the political agenda of bilateral relations with Russia, which had been shaped against the background of the general drift towards populist politics, became a mostly domestic political resource of the political administration, rather than a seriously taken international problem resolving which would ensure a qualitative leap in these relations. 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 was the only thing that could give him a boost as far as relations with Russia are concerned. The problem of the ‘Northern Territories' is generally treated by the Japanese as a problem of national dignity. Several generations of Japanese have been educated that it was the Soviet Union that implemented the aggression against Japan and occupied these territories, and so any concession is treated as a sort of betrayal of national interests.

Another crucial factor is the low status of Russia in Japan's economic priorities. Russia still did not obtain the status of an important strategic partner for Japan, especially in terms of economic relations - also because Russia does not have an investment climate appropriate for Japanese business. It is well-known that the much worse political relations and territorial disputes do not impede Japan from developing relations with China and South Korea that are vital trade and economic partners of Tokyo. Yet, political frictions do not go beyond a certain red line that could pose a fundamental risk for business. With Russia, Japanese politics can easily use any populist rhetoric without any risk of endangering Japanese economic interests. So stagnation in the political dialogue may be interpreted in the context of the limited level of development of economic relations with Russia.

Meanwhile, Russia has not made immediate progress on the territorial issue a goal. Russia considered 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. In Moscow's view, the only thing that was to be done was to pursue the policy of dignified and stable relations. Both countries need to move this issue from the center of the agenda of bilateral relations and focus on economic, cultural and other practical spheres of our cooperation - the formula of Chinese-Japanese relations, where territorial disputes do exist as well, but do not dominate their agenda.

In the foreseeable future, the Security Treaty with the US will remain the cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy. However, the modification of the treaty system towards greater flexibility, adaptability, economic efficiency, which goes parallel with the process of strengthening Japan's assertiveness in international affairs, creates additional opportunities for Japan-Russia dialogue over a broad range of issues of international security in East Asia.

However, there is room for more intensified efforts, and both countries are well aware of this. So far, one has 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.

Japan is still highly suspicious about the military and technical cooperation of Russia and China, considering it to be a means of the Chinese army modernization. Reports on the contacts between the defense ministries of the two countries, on the Russian-Chinese military exercises that have become regular, on the long-term projects in the security sphere within the framework of SCO, etc. comprise a matter of Tokyo's special concern. However, it is quite possible that Japan's fear to "be left out" of the context of China's steadily developing relations with Russia and the US will exert influence on the Russian vector of Japanese foreign policy, too. The Abe Cabinet is more "nationalistic" than the previous one and hence will more probably treat its relations with Moscow as a geopolitical "counterbalance" against China.

Russia and Japan are also urged towards closer relations, given the situation on the Korean peninsula. Korean matters are equally important to Russia and Japan in view of their security concerns over the nuclear program of Pyongyang and their discontent at being ousted to the periphery of the decision making process over the settlement of the problem. According to J.Fergusson, Japan wants to demonstrate that it has the capability to influence the regional political agenda; Russia wants to show that it is still a player in East Asia. Both sides hope to regain lost diplomatic clout and to enhance their political positions in Northeast Asia[i]. Consultations with Russia are gaining additional importance as a diplomatic instrument of Abe administration.

Japan shows a keen interest in involving the regions of Siberia and Russian Far East into the integration process of the Asia-Pacific region. The strongest opportunities of bilateral cooperation exist in the energy and environment sectors. Given its wealth and size, Japan will continue to be one of the Russia's most important energy markets for years to come, especially in view of deep structural reforms of the energy sector of Japan after Fukushima. One of the key moments in the strategy of energy security is Tokyo's interest in creating a regional market of hydrocarbons in East Asia where Japan could play a leading role. At the same time, among other discussed projects of economic cooperation with Russia, only those meeting the condition of mutual benefit could be called realistic and well-grounded. For instance, if Japan makes investments in projects of modernization of infrastructure in the Russian Far East, it would have a multiplication effect and stimulate its own economy.

For Russia Japan together with the United States counterbalances China, as well as China counterbalances Japan. In this context, security arrangements conducted within the US-Japan security alliance are not considered by Moscow to be a considerable threat to Russia and, moreover, are estimated as a balancing factor in the East Asian security paradigm.

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 ‘Northern territories issue' is evidence of that.

In tackling this issue, it would probably make more sense to follow the formula that would openly recognize 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 demilitarization 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 Day of ‘Northern territories'). 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".

[i]Fergusson , Joseph P. (2008). Japanese - Russian Relations: 1907 - 2007, London and N.Y., Routledge. P.8.
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