Ahead of the upcoming visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Russia, top experts debate the importance of improved Russian-Japanese relations, especially in the context of Russia’s ongoing confrontation with the West

Former Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura, right, hands over an envelope to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, in Moscow on Jan. 12. Photo: AP

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Russia, which is scheduled for May 6, should give a new incentive to the Kremlin to revitalize its relations with Tokyo. With their lack of interest in boosting bilateral relations, Moscow and Tokyo still don’t see each other as a top foreign policy priority today despite the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands, the source of their bilateral tensions since World War II.

The lack of any forward momentum in Russian-Japanese relations doesn’t seem very encouraging, according to a number of high-profile Russian experts and diplomats who participated in the Carnegie Moscow Center’s discussion on Russian-Japanese relations on Apr. 28.

On the eve of Abe’s visit to Sochi and his negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, top experts discussed the most pressing problems in the bilateral relations of the two countries, including the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands and Japan’s support of economic sanctions against Russia. One of the most important challenges is how to frame Moscow-Tokyo relations within the context of Russia’s confrontation with the West and China’s growing dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.       

Today, say experts, there is no solid basis to be hopeful about the future of Russian-Japanese relations. According to Alexander Panov, former Russian Ambassador to Japan and professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University), one of the main reasons is that there is neither demand nor interest to reinvigorate bilateral contacts.

While Russia is preoccupied with its deteriorating relations with the West and the Syrian conflict, Japan is concerned with the increasing influence of China in the Asia-Pacific region. Japan views the power of Beijing as a threat to its national security. In contrast, Tokyo does not see Moscow as a threat and vice versa and that’s why they don’t pay enough attention to each other, according to Panov.

The former diplomat expects Abe’s visit to Russia to be friendly in nature, but it won’t provide a boost for bilateral relations. With good personal chemistry between Putin and Abe, it will be a purely political move, which is hardly likely to bolster economic cooperation between Moscow and Tokyo. Until recently bilateral economic cooperation has been based on the outdated model of exchanging Russia’s raw materials for Tokyo’s high-tech products. The meeting also will not resolve the issue of the Kuril Islands.

“There won’t be any substantial results, first and foremost, because Japan is not ready to come up with a compromise,” Panov said.

He argues that Russia is more flexible and ready to make concessions in the Kuril Islands territorial dispute, with Putin ready to yield two island to Japan – Hobomai and Shikotan – under Article 9 of the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration, which restored their damaged diplomatic relations after World War II. Yet Tokyo seeks the return of all four islands, which is unacceptable for the Kremlin.

Another frustrating factor for bilateral relations is the fact that Japan, if reluctantly, joined the sanctions against Russia in response to the Kremlin’s controversial policy in Ukraine. According to Panov, it is a sign of Tokyo’s solidarity with the West and, particularly, with the U.S. And so far there are no reasons for Japan to change its approach. This could affect the negotiations on the Kuril Islands as well.

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However, there are certain checks and balances in Russian-Japanese relations. One of the most powerful deterrents for Tokyo is its gut instinct that Russia and China could team up and create a bloc based on anti-Japanese sentiment. It is going to be “a nightmare for Japan,” argues Panov. So, that’s why it is essential for Abe to be friendly with Russia and maintain favorable relations with Moscow.

In fact, Japan sees the incorporation of Crimea into Russia as an ominous precedent, which conjures up its territorial dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea – a dispute that even overshadows its differences with Russia over the Kuril Islands. No wonder Tokyo is seeking support from the United States, just in case it has a conflict with an assertive Beijing. But the problem is that Abe cannot trust the U.S., which has to straddle between Japan and its major economic partner China. The U.S. has called on Japan to find a diplomatic solution to the dispute.

While Japan finds itself in a very tricky position, with its proximity to an assertive China, Russia seems to be missing an opportunity for establishing coherent strategic cooperation with Tokyo. Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Trenin argues that Russia’s leadership “doesn’t have any strategy and specific goals in regard to Japan,” which is not a good sign. Russia is “passive” in coming up with strategic ties with Tokyo; such an approach might hamper its national interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

“Russia’s pivot to the East is one-sided and, in fact, it adds up to relations with China,” Trenin explains, pointing to the fact that Russia doesn’t pay enough attention to Japan. Given the Kremlin’s current confrontation with the West over Ukraine, which Trenin sees as “fundamental and long-term in its nature,” Moscow has to diversify the list of its partners among developed Asian countries like Japan and should not limit its collaboration with China.

Russia has refused to become a junior partner of the United States, but it might become the junior partner of China, given the increasing geopolitical and economic clout of the latter. That’s why Trenin sees Japan as “the untapped reserve” of Russia’s foreign policy, because Tokyo could be a good partner for Russia in the Asia-Pacific region. This partnership could help Moscow overcome the technological gap and modernize its economy. This is essential during a period of low oil prices, given Russia’s perennial addiction to raw materials.

And the fact that the Kremlin seems to be “in the state of tsarist serenity,” with no robust national interest toward Japan is a matter of concern for Trenin. He argues that Russia should be more vigorous in fostering ties with Japan because passive foreign policy is “doomed to failure.” 

However, some factors such as the U.S. attempts to put pressure on Tokyo not to deal with a sanctioned Russia could be a big problem for the Kremlin. Japan won’t give up its solidarity with Washington; it is hardly likely to shy away from the sanctions policy toward Russia, given its extensive military and economic cooperation with the United States.

Nevertheless, there is a silver lining for the Kremlin: The very fact that Abe dismissed Washington’s request not to meet with Putin in Sochi on May indicates that Japan is very serious about pursuing friendly relations with Russia and there might be some “grey areas,” to quote Trenin, where Russia can promote its interests in the Japanese direction.  

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Business-minded people remain cautiously optimistic about Russia-Japan relations. They believe that Russia can offer Japan different infrastructure and technology transfer projects as well as a solid scientific foundation. Despite the fact that Russia’s trade turnover with Japan decreased almost by 30-40 percent and Russia is currently not seen as a serious economic partner, healthy and extensive economic relations are crucial for both strategically. In this regard, Abe’s visit to Sochi is seen as a good sign for business, as a sort of counterbalance to sanctions. 

Igor Dyachenko, the executive director of the Russian-Japanese Business Council, who also attended the Carnegie Moscow Center’s event, argues that politics is not a reason to relegate their bilateral relations to the secondary agenda, taking into account that 90 percent of Moscow-Tokyo ties are outside the realm of sanctions.  So, he sees the visit of Abe to Sochi as “a small step” that “gradually will improve the environment.”