Abstract. This article analyzes development prospects of relations between Russia and Japan as Japanese diplomacy toward Russia becomes more active. In May 2016, Prime Minister S. Abe put forward an eight-point cooperation program. More than 100 economic agreements have been signed within the framework of that program; however, most of them have not been implemented. The author examines the reasons for failure of these bilateral relations to develop.

Speaking in parliament on January 12, 2018, Prime Minister S. Abe said in a program statement: “Japanese-Russian bilateral relations have a great potential. Last September our former residents were able to fly to Kunashir and Iturup islands for the first time. We shall broaden and deepen bilateral relations by carrying on joint economic activity on the four northern islands and implementing an eight-point economic cooperation plan. Apart from that, we shall painstakingly fulfill the premises agreed on in Nagato with a view to solving the territorial dispute and signing a peace treaty between Japan and Russia.1 In other words, the aim of Japan’s policy toward Russia remains the same, namely, to sign a peace treaty through solving the territorial problem. To achieve this goal the government of Japan is ready to continue economic cooperation with Russia in eight spheres.

The eight-point program was suggested by the Japanese side during the Russian-Japanese Summit in Sochi in May 2016. Within the framework of this cooperation program and up to the present time, over one hundred economic agreements have been signed. About forty percent of them are being discussed with a view to implementing them.2 That is, up to now, we deal with “protocols of intentions.” Although during the two years that have passed we could have tried to implement some of the intentions and turn them into operating joint ventures and promising mutually beneficial projects. Russian representatives have time and again passed on their suggestions to Tokyo concerning the implementation of these projects. However, these applications remained unanswered, and the projects themselves have been reduced to very modest parameters.3

The point is that the positions of the sides concerning the essence of economic cooperation do not coincide: Japan singles out cooperation in the sectors closely connected with the daily life of the Russian people, whereas Russia comes out for the realization of large-scale investment and infrastructure projects. This trend of the Russian side is prompted by the need to cooperate in the high-tech sphere and the introduction of the latest hardware in the Russian industry. The Japanese side offers assistance in building hothouses, creating enterprises growing agricultural products, installing more up-to-date streetlights and traffic lights, etc. Naturally, it’s all very useful, but it is hardly going to contribute to the modernization of the Russian economy and a noticeable improvement of the socioeconomic situation in the country.

Apart from differences in the initial positions of the sides, there are also such objective difficulties as mistrust in the Russian partners, unsatisfactory investment climate in Russia, changing legislation, inadequately developed infrasrtructure, and the anti-Russian sanctions of the West.

The modest results of the Abe eight-point program were recognized by Japan’s Minister of Trade and Industry Seko Hiroshige in charge of the development of economic cooperation with Russia. At a meeting with the First Deputy Premier of Russia Igor Shuvalov on April 28, 2018, in Moscow, he emphasized that there were already certain results in the field of medicine and construction of vegetable industry enterprises. And he specially noted that despite their small scale, they helped raise the living standards of the Russian people. Along with that, he said that the government of Japan would “follow with attention the influence of sanctions against Russia,” inasmuch as there was a threat to Japanese companies working with Russia to get under those sanctions.4 Under these conditions, the Japanese government is facing difficulties to evolve a sound policy to implement the eight-point program of economic cooperation. This is why an expansion of cooperation beyond the agreed-on program seems hardly possible.

The prospects of the realization of joint economic activity on the South Kurile Islands seem still vaguer (agreement on it was reached during President V. Putin’s visit to Japan in December 2016).

In September 2017, at the sidelines of the 3rd Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok, the two sides endorsed five promising fields of cooperation in the South Kurile Islands: aquaculture, wind power, hothouse economies, reclamation, use of package tourist tours.5 A year later, at the 4th EEF, the two sides coordinated the road maps for realization of projects in the five agreed-on fields.6 However, agreements on the international legal regime on the basis of which the two sides will carry on joint economic activity have not been reached. On March 16, 2018, on the eve of his regular visit to Japan, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov answered questions of the Japanese mass media. In particular, the latter were interested in the Russian authorities’ attitude toward the Japanese government’s condition on the need to set up a special international legal regime of cooperation on the islands. S. Lavrov noted that if the final list of projects was long enough (so far only five very important concrete, but not major projects are discussed, such as aquaculture, wind power, hothouses, reclamation, package tourist tours,) and our Japanese companions see an opportunity to realize them as far as Japanese participation is concerned on the basis of privileges under legislation in that part of the Russian Federation (the regime of territories of prioritized socioeconomic development and the Free port of Vladivostok, these privileges will be used.7 The Minister emphasized that in the event of the emergence of more spectacular projects Moscow was ready to examine the introduction of additional more favorable conditions for the implementation of economic projects within the framework of joint economic activity on the four islands. As to the introduction of a special international legal regime on the islands or the creation of a supranational body, Moscow does not see such need.

At the same time, the Russian side sees the absence of any practical results of joint economic activity on the Kurile Islands. Yuri Trutnev, the special representative of the Russian President in the Far Eastern Federal District, has given a rather pessimistic assessment of the development prospects for joint economic activity on the islands. In an interview to the TASS News Agency he said: “Quite honestly, I’m convinced of the presence of different views in Japan. It is wellnigh impossible to collect all of them and draw some consolidated view of the country. And while there is no balance and unanimity, there will be no concrete steps. For us, there is apparently no political will, on the contrary, there are political risks.”8 Speaking of the lack of unanimity, Yu. Trutnev evidently has in mind the existing opposition of the Japanese political elite to the plans of Premier S. Abe, as well as the unwillingness of the Japanese big business to invest capital in ineffective, but politically solvent projects. The Japanese political circles have time and again voiced doubts concerning such joint activity on conditions suitable to Tokyo. There are critical remarks addressed to the country’s premier for his too soft attitude toward Moscow and unjustifiably great hopes for too confidential relations with President V. Putin.

Duality of Japan’s Policy

Against the background of Russia’s complicated relations with the leading western countries carrying on their sanctions policy against the RF, it is a difficult task for Japan to evolve a balanced position between the interests of western countries, the United States above all, and Russia. A typical example is the situation of the Skripal affair. On the one hand, Tokyo had to follow suit of its ally the United States, and expel at least one Russian diplomat. On the other hand, such diplomatic act could put an end to prolonged efforts of the Japanese side to establish confidential relations with Moscow and persuade it to resolve the territorial problem on the Japanese conditions. Japan refrained from expelling Russian diplomats and censuring Russia.

By the results of the meeting of the Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov with his Japanese counterpart T. Kono on March 18, 2018, the latter noted that “the use of chemical weapons is unacceptable, but, above all, the most important thing was to clear all facts.”9 The Japanese government was markedly restrained at first in its reaction to the events in Syrian parliament and calld for “getting more information first.”

Differences between Moscow and Tokyo are still present in connection with the deployment of US High-Altitude Area Defense Systems from intermediaterange missiles (THAAD.) Simultaneously, the plan to purchase two systems of the American ground-based Aegis Ashore system, which are going to be deployed in Akita and Yamaguchi prefectures, has now reached the final stage.10 In this connection, the Russian side has once again expressed its concern. Although the Japanese side insisted that this system posed no threat to other countries and is only aimed at protecting in Japan from North Korean missiles, S. Lavrov noted that the American plans to deploy the US global ABM defense system components in Japan directly touch Russia’s security and emphasized that the problems connected with security in this region in the context of negotiations on a peace treaty are of primary importance.”11

On April 17, 2018, the Japanese government joined the statement of the Big Seven foreign ministries heads, which placed on Moscow responsibility for poisoning in Salisbury and preventing the establishment of control over the use of chemical weapons in Syria.12 On that day, due to a threat of getting under the secondary sanctions of the United States, the major Japanese raw material traders stopped purchases of aluminum from its Russian manufacturer Rusal, whose share on the Japanese market comprised 16 percent of the total volume of Japan’s consumption.13 This confirmed the fact that the government of Japan had not enough influence on Japanese big business, which was guided exclusively by economic and financial interests.

The dual position of Japan with which Tokyo demonstrates its friendliness and its special relations with Moscow in every way possible, on the one hand, and on the other, comes out in a united anti-Russian front together with the consolidated West, was criticized by the Russian side. Commenting on the statement of the Big Seven in Toronto, S. Lavrov stated “that the anti-Russian background of the results of the foreign ministers’ meeting is quite evident. Unfortunately, this anti-Russian slippery path was taken by those countries of the Seven, which assure us that they are not taking part in the attempts to isolate Russia.”14

On May 4, 2018, the Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia Igor Morgulov, who is in charge of Russian-Japanese relations, told the Russian newspaper Izvestiya about prospects concerning the conclusion of a peace treaty between the two countries: “I can say that progress in solving this matter is possible in the conditions of a comprehensive development of Russian-Japanese ties and formation of an atmosphere of genuine mutual trust and partnership. So far we are at the beginning of this path.” It follows from this statement that contrary to the optimistic expectations in Tokyo, no tangible success has been achieved so far in the matter of signing a peace treaty. In other words, making encouraging statements about the possible “return of the islands,” representatives of the Japanese establishment, including the Prime Minister S.Abe, misled Japanese public, indulging in wishful thinking.

At the same time, the high-ranking Russian diplomat deemed it necessary to note that Russia is worried over the strengthening of the Japanese-American military- political alliance and is not going to conceal it.15 Despite assertions of its love of peace and friendliness, Japan’s promises often remain empty words, but in real fact, Tokyo supports all anti-Russian sanctions of the United States and its European allies, joins the economic and other sanctions, signs documents of the Big Seven containing accusations of Moscow, agrees to grant its territory for the deployment of the U.S. global ABM defense system components, buys and, in violation of the Constitution, creates its own latest fighter bombers, modernizes aircraft carriers, and takes part in NATO military exercises in the Baltic Sea quite close to Russia.16 Apart from that, in violation of its own Constitution, it returns to itself the right to wage wars beyond its borders, which causes justified concern among its neighboring states.

The Peace Treaty Problem

After returning to the Premier’s post in December 2012, S. Abe designated relations with Russia as a priority line in his foreign policy. In contrast to his predecessors, S. Abe did not pay too much attention to the territorial question, having suggested to the Russian side to expand the format of bilateral consultations and include in them the discussion of security issues. The key territorial issue was concealed under the formula of the need to sign a peace treaty.

The need to sign it was reaffirmed during Abe’s official visit to Russia in April 2013. In a joint statement on the development of Russian-Japanese partnership “the leaders of the two countries agreed that the situation, in which, after 67 years since the end of World War II, there is no peace treaty between Russia and Japan, is far from normal.”17

The two sides expressed readiness “to sign a peace treaty by a final decision and in a mutually acceptable form.”18 However, the two sides have been unable so far to find a mutually acceptable form to settle this problem.

The Japanese side bases its argumentation on the Tokyo Declaration of 1993, according to which the two parties have agreed to sign a peace treaty after solving the problem of the accession of all four islands. At the same time, it is important to note that the Tokyo Declaration regards the island issue nothing but a subject for negotiations. The Russian side acknowledged the presence of a territorial problem, but this does not mean that it recognizes Japan’s sovereignty over the four islands. On the contrary, recognition by the Japanese side of the fact that all four islands are the subject of negotiations has strengthened Russia’s position with regard to the fact that it has sovereignty over all four islands.

In May 2016, S. Abe suggested a “new approach” with a view to preparing an atmosphere for the signing of a peace treaty. This approach did not presuppose the development of a large-scale cooperation with Russia, but had an aim of convincing the Russian side of a possibility of such cooperation in an event of transfer of the South Kurile Islands to Japan. It was such explanation that was made by Premier S.Abe in an interview to the News on Saturday program on the eve of his visit to Russia in May 2018. He said, among other things: “Its essence is that going along the road of signing a peace treaty, the citizens of Japan and Russia should recognize the significance of bilateral relations, they should understand that peace treaty is necessary for the development of Japanese-Russian ties.”19

Within the framework of the “new approach,” Russia and Japan have agreed to develop joint economic activity on South Kurile Islands. While doing this, the Japanese side insisted on the elaboration of a special international legal regime of cooperation without detriment to the positions of the two parties. Thereby, Japan wished to strengthen its positions on the islands economically and, if possible, politically, which could eventually lead to transferring these Russian territories under Japanese sovereignty. In other words, Tokyo’s policy was aimed at creating conditions under which Moscow would recognize the South Kurile Islands a disputable territory, which would allow it to claim the inconclusive character of Russian sovereignty over the islands. In that case, a question could be put forward on “condominium” in the South Kurile Islands where both Russian and Japanese legislations could be used. The setting up of supranational body on these territories would be even more desirable for Japan.

Prior to the forthcoming regular visit to Russia by Japan’s Premier in late May, he made an important statement on March 20, 2018, at a meeting with schoolchildren of Hokkaido prefecture, who won extempore speech competition devoted to the Northern territories. S. Abe voiced his intention and hope to resolve the problem of a peace treaty with the Russian Federation within the lifetime of his generation and pass this gain to his descendants.20 It was not accidental that this statement was made after the announcement of the results of the presidential elections in Russia at which V. Putin was reelected President. It is with Putin’s reelection that the Japanese side connects its hopes to reach a breakthrough in the territorial dispute, although there have been no grounds for such excessive political expectations on the Russian side. The consultation process at the deputy foreign ministers’ level did not give grounds to hope for a breakthrough in the territorial problem.

S. Abe’s official visit to Russia took place on May 25 to 26, 2018. Within its framework, the Prime Minister of Japan, along with the presidents of Russia and France, took part in a plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, and also chaired, jointly with V. Putin, a meeting of the Russia – Japan business dialogue.

In his speech at the plenary session of the Forum, S.Abe asked those present to dream and drew a bright picture of economic cooperation, which could later lead to the emergence of a new logistical route in the Arctic Ocean, the Bering Sea, and the Sea of Japan. The transformation of this vast area into a “realm of peace and prosperity ruled by law,” in the words of Japan’s Premier, would be possible as a result of signing a peace treaty.21 However, a legitimate question arises as to why this enviable picture cannot be realized before the signing of a peace treaty, if it answers the interests of the two countries. It is rather another ruse of the Japanese side in order to persuade the Russian leadership to make territorial concessions. In actual fact, big business is very rational and will not agree to politically motivated, but economically and financially unprofitable deals with foreign countries.

In the context of the announced turn to the East, the Russian leadership is interested in broadening economic cooperation with Japan. From this point of view, the signing of a bilateral political document would contribute to the development of a comprehensive cooperation of the two countries. Along with this, the Russian side has time and again pointed to the absence of similarity between the peace treaty and the territorial question.22 Negotiations on the accession of the South Kurile Islands have been taking place on the initiative of the Japanese side. However, the Russian side does not look likely discussing the matter seriously. Moscow sees the territorial issue on the results of World War II settled once and for all, and the only subject to be discussed can be the conditions of the use, including joint use, of some or other territories on condition of preservation of Russian sovereignty over them.

Taking into consideration the opposed character of the sides’ positions concerning the accession of the South Kurile Islands, a compromise version of the problem settlement could be a “two-treaty” foundation, that is, first to sign a peace treaty and along with time when conditions are ripe, to sign a treaty on border demarcation. It was such a variant of solution that was suggested by President Putin on September 12, 2018, at a plenary session of the 4th Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. He said, among other things: “Let us sign a peace treaty, not now, but before the end of the year, without any preliminary conditions…. And later, on the basis of this peace treaty, as friends, we shall continue to solve all disputed issues. Naturally, it seems to me, that this would facilitate solution of all problems with which we are unable to cope for seventy years.”23

In reply, Tokyo confined itself to reiterating its official position, according to which a peace treaty can only be concluded after solving the problem of the accession of all four islands.

Despite outward restraint, everything that has taken place in Vladivostok is assessed in Japan as a diplomatic failure of S. Abe, who has failed to achieve any progress in resolving the territorial issue during all years of negotiations. Moreover, Japanese public has so far hoped that Moscow is wishing to build relations between the two countries on the basis of the Joint Declaration of 1956, according to which the U.S.S.R. expressed readiness to transfer two islands to Japan after signing a peace treaty. However, the Vladivostok proposal presupposes the signing of a peace treaty without transferring any territories to Japan, which is taken by the people of Japan for a stiffening of Moscow’s position. This was being especially unpleasant on the eve of the September elections of the chairman of the ruling Liberal-Democratic party, who automatically becomes the head of the government. Of course, relations with Russia are hardly the key element of Japan’s domestic and foreign policies, and this was why the diplomatic fiasco in the Russian direction did not exert a too great influence on the election results.

After his election for the third term, S. Abe received the opportunity to remain at his post until 2021, and there are grounds to believe that he will continue his active policy concerning Russia, inasmuch as any retreat will be tantamount to an admission of defeat and “loss of face.” All the more so since for the maintenance of peace and stability in the especially vulnerable region for Japanese interests – Northeast Asia – the preservation of partnership relations with Russia is of crucial importance for Japan.

* * *

And so, one can conclude that S. Abe’s “new approach” regarding economic cooperation as an advance for major political concessions has not brought the desired results. This is connected, above all, with the asymmetry of political goals and interests of the sides with regard to the development of bilateral ties. The key place in Japan’s policy in relations with Russia is taken by the territorial issue. All initiatives of the Japanese side, including the eight-point program, are aimed at tackling precisely this problem in the bilateral relations of the two countries.

The proposal on the need to sign a peace treaty has been made by the Japanese side in order to score progress in the territorial issue. Moreover, Tokyo can only be satisfied with such solution under which all four islands will be transferred to Japan’s sovereignty. It was this position that was confirmed in the corresponding resolution of the Japanese parliament adopted unanimously. In the conditions of the parliamentary-cabinet form of government in Japan, the Prime Minister should not ignore any decision of parliament. Consequently, the conclusion of a peace treaty between Japan and Russia can take place only after a solution of the territorial issue.

In turn, the Russian leadership is interested in broadening a comprehensive cooperation with Japan, but without coordination with any political obligations.  The Vladivostok proposal vividly demonstrates Russia’s readiness to elevate bilateral relations to a new level of trust. However, a peace treaty burdened with territorial claims of Japan is not in the national interests of Russia and its security as a whole.


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  2. Japanese-Russian Economic Cooperation: different expectations, realization prospects 40%, Mainiti shimbun 05.02.2018. URL: https://mainichi.jp/articles/20180502/ddm/007/020/127000c (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
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  4. Japanese-Russian Economic Cooperation
  5. Statements for the press on the results of negotiations with Premier Shinzo Abe of Japan. 09.07.2017. URL: http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/55555. (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
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  8. Yuri Trutnev: system of relations with regions should be changed, TASS. 03.05.2018. URL: http://tass.ru/opinions/interviews/5004791 (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  9. S. Lavrov discussed in Japan bilateral relations, security issues, and the Skripal affair // Novosti. 03.21.2018. URL: http://tass.ru/politika/5053096 (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  10. The Cabinet has adopted a decision on the land system “Aegis,” two complexes will cover almost the entire territory of the country, Mainichii shimbun 12.17.2018; URL: https://mainichi.jp/articles/20171219/k00/00e/ 010/209000c (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  11. Lavrov: The deployment of U.S. antimissile defense systems in Japan directly touches Russia’s security, RIA Novosti, 03.21.2018. URL: http:tass.ru/politika/5050841 (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  12. The G7 countries called on Russia “urgently to reply to questions on the Skripal affair,” RIA Novosti. 04.17.2018. URL: https://ria.ru/world/20180417/1518793079.html (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  13. Japan declines Russian aluminum, Regnum, 18.04.2018. URL: https://regnum.ru/news/polit/2405520.html (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  14. Statement and answers to mass media questions by Russian Foreign Minister S. Lavrov on the results of the SCO Council, Beijing,April 24, 2018. URL: http://www.mid.ru/foreign_policy/news/asset_publisher/cKNonkJE02Bw/comment/id/3190325 (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  15. We are against the “sanctions bludgeon,” Izvestia, 05.04.2018. URL: https://iz.ru/738892/Natalia-portiakova/my-protiv-razmakhivaniia-sanktcionnoi-dubinoi (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  16. NATO and Japan carry on military exercises in the Baltic Sea. 08.22.2018. URL.: https://www.nato.int/cps/ru/natohq/news_157770.htm (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  17. Joint statement of the President of the Russian Federation and the Prime Minister of Japan on the development of Russian-Japanese partnership. 04.29.2013. URL: http//www.kremlin.ru/supplement/1446 (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  18. Ibid.
  19. 19.Abe counts on progress in concluding a peace treaty with Russia, RIA Novosti. 05.19.2018. URL: https://ria.ru/world/20180519/1520915736.html?inj=1 (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  20. Abe stated that he would like to solve the territorial question with the Russian Federation during the lifetime of his generation, RIA Novosti 03.20.2018. URL: http://tass.ru/mezhdunarodnaya-panorama/5047074 (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
  21. Plenary session of St. Petersburg’s International Economic Forum. 05.25.2018. URL: http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/57556 (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)
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  23. Plenary session of Eastern Economic Forum. 09.12.2018. URL: http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/58537 (Retrieved on 09.15.2018.)

Translated by Yevgeny Khazanov