There are a few areas where Russia and Japan could decide to cooperate in an effort to enhance both regional and international security. But first they need to work out a solution for the Kuril Islands.

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, left, speaks next to Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida during their joint news conference in Tokyo on Apr. 15. Photo: AP

Last week Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov paid a working visit to Tokyo as part of his diplomatic tour of Asia. In spite of serious differences on some geopolitical and territorial issues, negotiations in Japan showed that both Moscow and Tokyo are interested in developing their cooperation in multiple areas.

Difficulties do not rule out compromise

Among the numerous geopolitical problems that currently exist in East Asia, the territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands remains a key item on the Russia-Japan agenda. In fact, these islands have been the focal point of tensions between Russia and Japan ever since the end of World War II. 

Of course, this is a very sensitive issue: Japanese and Russian diplomats perceive the "Northern Territory" problem as a major factor that holds back full-scale Japan-Russia cooperation. On the other hand, the Russian side regularly urges its Pacific neighbors to find a way to approach the resolution of the matter pursuant to the political results of World War II.

Still, it is not just history and the Northern territory issue that hampers the evolution of bilateral relations. The two countries are objectively geopolitical rivals: this fact is underscored in the East Asia region by the current military and political alliance between Tokyo and Washington. Moreover, the growing strategic partnership between Russia and China only adds fuel to the fire. Unfortunately, the disturbing reality is that both Russia and Japan are enhancing their military presence in the proximity of the disputed islands.

Also read Russia Direct's report: "The Asia-Pacific Military Buildup: Russia’s Response"

At the same time, there are a few areas where Moscow and Tokyo agree, such as fighting international terrorism and responding to the cyber terrorism threat, recognizing the need for international cooperation to combat climate change, and de-escalating the situation on the Korean Peninsula.

It is interesting that during his working visit to Tokyo, Foreign Minister Lavrov rather firmly stated that, "Russia would like a large and powerful country like Japan to weigh in more on and occupy a more prominent position in international affairs." Lavrov's words could be interpreted as a diplomatic hint that Japan should adopt more independent policies towards Russia and become less reliant on the U.S. because anti-Russian sanctions that Tokyo joined definitely damage its economic and trade cooperation with Moscow. 

The economic potential of Russian-Japanese relations

As Valeriy Kistanov, the head of the Center for Japanese Studies at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, justly points out, "Trade turnover between Russia and Japan is rather minor on a global scale and depends on market fluctuations."  While three years ago trade reached its peak at $35 billion, last year the overall turnover dropped by almost one-third. 

In part, the sharp decline is a consequence of Japan joining the "Crimea sanctions” against Russia (even though Tokyo introduced a softer version of sanctions compared to the U.S. and the EU). On the other hand, trade between Russia and Japan is suffering from a sharp drop in oil prices.

Japan's share in Russia's foreign trade is rather small: it is below 4 percent. But Russia's share in Japanese trade is even lower, at 2.5 percent. At the same time, Japan lacks its own energy resources, so to a certain extent in depends on the import of Russian hydrocarbons: Russia accounts for 10 percent of natural gas and 9 percent of petroleum imported by Japan.

These days, economics often trumps politics in international relations. Of course, this statement does not quite fit Russia-Japan relations, but the Japanese business community is definitely interested in the Russian market, especially Russia’s machine building, pharmaceuticals, communications and agricultural sectors. The two countries are successfully working on joint energy projects Sakhalin-1 and Sakhalin-2.

All these factors make Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's upcoming visit to Moscow particularly significant and relevant.                             

Preparing for Shinzo Abe’s visit to Russia  

As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov stated upon the conclusion of his two-day working visit to Tokyo, the negotiations with his Japanese colleague Fumio Kishida were "constructive and comprehensive." Lavrov's visit to Tokyo could be dedicated to practical organizational matters pertaining to the preparation of upcoming Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe's visit to Russia and the discussion of the theme for Russian President Vladimir Putin's official visit to Japan.

Even though Japan sides with the U.S. on most geopolitical issues, conservative Prime Minister Abe for several years has been persistently trying to urge Moscow "to resolve the territorial dispute around the Kuril Islands once and for all" and finally sign a comprehensive peace treaty. On the other hand, Moscow and Tokyo have had major disagreements on the issue of the four South Kuril Islands for decades.

The consultations held in the capital of Japan confirmed that Abe would visit Russia "in the near future," but the date has not been announced yet. At the same time, the Japanese side would like to see the Russian president in Tokyo this year in spite of Washington's reservations. Naturally, Japan expects that the visit “will resolve the territorial issue" which, according to Moscow, is not really a possibility.

Russia-Japan relations appear to be stuck in a vicious circle. Lavrov was definitely right in stating that "the potential of Russia-Japan interaction so far has not been fully utilized." We can only hope that top-level meetings will provide the incentive for the realization of this potential.

In any case, Russia is vested in the development of relations with Asian countries in multiple areas. That much can be deduced from Lavrov's visit to Mongolia (prior to his coming to Japan), which, to be fair, does not have any unresolved territorial issues with Russia.

In Ulaanbaatar, Lavrov signed a Russia-Mongolia Medium-Term Strategic Partnership Development Program and reached an agreement on increasing the supply of Russian machine building and energy products to Mongolia. Unfortunately, Russia and Japan so far have not made similar arrangements.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.