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22.01.2017 г.

Russian-Japanese Summit: Who is the Winning Side?

Streltsov Dmitry

The Russian-Japanese Summit meeting held in Japan on December 15-16 leaves more questions than answers. Future solution to the territorial problem remains in the fog, and the leaders of the two countries will yet have to find a way to move the negotiation process from the dead point.

The parties reaffirmed their commitment to the peace treaty, and progress in this direction is assumed to be achieved through the joint economic activities on the Kuril Islands. By the proposal of the Japanese Prime Minister it was agreed to start consultations on the establishment of a special regime on the islands, to establish cooperation mechanisms and to create conditions for a solution to the problem of peace treaty. According to the statement adopted by the parties, joint activities shall not endanger the positions of the parties on the issue of peace treaty. In other words, the expansion of Japanese business to the disputed territories does not mean Tokyo's recognition of Russian sovereignty.

Summit agreements also addressed the humanitarian aspects of the territorial problem - the possibility for former Japanese residents of the islands to freely visit Southern Kurils, for example, to take care for the graves of their ancestors. Concrete agreements were reached on implementation of the ‘Eight-point Plan' on economic cooperation nominated by Abe during the Sochi meeting with Putin in May this year .

In Japan, the results of the visit were perceived mainly in a negative way because originally there had existed high hopes for a breakthrough in the territorial dispute. Because in reality this did not happen, many Japanese started to believe that Japan has rather lost and that Abe has received nothing in return for his agreement to large investment to the financially embarrassed Russia.

To explain the Japan's diplomatic failures some observers in Tokyo appeal to a theory that Moscow has allegedly tightened its line in the negotiations with Tokyo in the past two months before the summit. The reason is Donald Trump's victory in the presidential elections - as the new US president is more condescending towards Moscow, the Russian side began to nourish hopes for an improvement in the US-Russia relations. These hopes are fueled also by the appointment of the pro-Russian Rex Tillerson to the post of US State Secretary. Against this backdrop, Russia lost motivation to actively move on the Japanese direction, as Tokyo's mission as mediator in the normalization of relations with the West becomes unnecessary for Moscow. The Trump factor, however, should not be overestimated: it is not known yet whether Trump will be able to persistently implement his personal views in the foreign policy decisions while most Republican advisers would hardly be sympathetic to Russia. Yet the psychological moment should not be underestimated. In addition, Moscow could be encouraged by OPEC's decision to reduce oil production which has led to higher oil prices.

 But how true is the idea that Putin managed to outsmart his Japanese partner? Indeed, the results of the meeting at a first glance look like Russia's diplomatic victory. Contrary to the expectations of the Japanese people, no concrete options to resolve the territorial dispute were in any way discussed during the summit, and the final documents did not refer to the 1993 Tokyo Declaration or any other documents on which the Japanese side bases its position on the territorial dispute. Against this backdrop, many observers believe that Abe simply actually surrendered to Moscow's pressure. As the Japanese expert Akihiro Iwashita put it, ‘the Russian President tried to sell Shikotan and Habomai at a higher price, meaning Japan could get the two islands for free. But whilst Japan has not received the two islands yet, Prime Minister Abe abandoned his claims for the four islands. It's a situation impossible for business negotiations'[1].

The sense of moral defeat by Japan is strengthened by many ambiguities in the final documents regarding the ‘joint economic activity' in the Northern territories - the segment which aroused maximum conflict on the preparatory stage, so that only the personal meeting of the two leaders led to a compromise. For example, much unclear remains in the term ‘special system' which is due to be set up for promoting the expansion of the Japanese business to the Kuril islands. Any ‘special system', even elaborated jointly, will at large not help to relieve the problem of proper governance. In reality the only possible way is the application of the Russian Federation laws, as was confirmed at a press-conference by the presidential aide Yuri Ushakov[2]. Meanwhile the main problem for Tokyo is that by allowing Japanese businesses to come to the Kuriles and agreeing on the validity of the Russian laws, Japan indirectly recognizes the islands as the Russian territory.

However, on closer analysis, it turns out that any talks of the unilateral concessions by Tokyo wouldn't be quite true, as Japan also receives significant benefits from the results of the meeting. First, it is the reaffirmation of Putin's determination to conclude peace treaty with Japan, - the Russian leader called the absence of such treaty an ‘anachronism'. Actually the treaty is a euphemism for the territorial dispute because all other outstanding issues between Russia with Japan resulting from the World War the Second are considered to be settled by the 1956 Joint Declaration. And while Putin has specifically stated that Russia has no territorial problem with Japan, it could be argued that Moscow's willingness to move towards the peace treaty means that it does not reject dialogue with Tokyo on this sensitive issue and, under certain conditions, is ready to look for a mutually acceptable solution. This is due to the fact that the issue of peace treaty was put on the agenda of bilateral relations in the 1990-s on the initiative and largely under the pressure from Japan and Russia has always been an essentially ‘guided side' on this matter.

Another plus for Tokyo is Moscow's willingness to include all four South Kurile islands in a joint economic zone. It should be recalled that since the 2000-s Russia built its position on the strict observation of the 1956 Declaration, under which it is obliged to pass two islands to Japan after signing the peace treaty. By agreeing to create a special regime for all Southern Kurils Moscow thereby indirectly softens its basic two islands position. A new ground for future conversations and different interpretations is given by an entirely incomprehensible status of the zone of economic cooperation, which in fact dilutes the Russian title on the Kuril Islands. It is clear that the ‘special system' will be discussed for an indefinitely long time, so the talks about Russia's ‘yielding' ('compromicing') could be fueled even more.

As a specific tribute Tokyo one can also evaluate Moscow's assent to provide former Japanese residents of the islands with no visa visiting rights . Russia even agreed to discuss the issue of a substantial expansion of visa-free regime for travelling to the Kuril Islands and Sakhalin region, extending it not only to the former Japanese islanders, but also to all residents of Hokkaido. Developing the idea of human exchanges, Abe suggested to turn these islands into the ‘zone of coexistence and co-prosperity' for those who lived on the Islands, and those who live on them now. Establishment of a zone of free residence/economic cooperation, of course, implies its special legal status compared to any ‘usual' region of Russian Federation. It is also important that such a status would be specifically associated with the special rights of the Japanese. The economic and cultural penetration of Japan to Kuril Islands, the economic development of the islands by the Japanese business would undoubtedly give Japan an additional argument to justify its claims to these territories and would shatter the inviolability of the Russian position on the Kuril Islands.

According to the Japanese expert Nobuo Shimotomai, the essence of the compromise is that former Japanese islanders, who previously were not able to travel to their homeland will now have the chance to do it, while for Russians is more important to acquire the benefits of the economic cooperation with Japan. In other words, both parties agreed to abandon the traditional approach to solving this problem on the basis of the definition of national sovereignty and quantitative formula of numerical division of the islands in favor of the people-centered mechanisms[3].

It can be concluded that the results of the summit on the issue of a peace treaty are the result of a compromise, rather than of the unilateral concessions of any of the parties.




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