On the sidelines of the ASEAN-Russia Summit in Singapore last November, Prime Minister Abe and President Putin both compromised to an acceleration in the negotiations of a peace treaty between both countries. We are now in March and close to the G20 Summit in Osaka, but has much been accomplished?

Join us in this episode as Timothy Langley and Dr. James Brown discuss the Japan-Russia Peace Treaty Agreement and the Kurile Islands issue.


Full Transcript below:

Tim: Russia and Japan, where are we today? Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button! Hi, everyone. Welcome back to Tokyo on Fire. Today is February 20th 2019, Russia and Japan are still in very tense negotiations. The Foreign Minister has been meeting with the Foreign Minister of Russia, there is a lot of talk going on: where are we right now. I’m so happy to welcome back Dr. James Brown. Welcome back!

James: Thanks for having me.

Tim: You happen to be one of our most popular guests. You are articulate about an issue that is very complicated, very important for the Japanese people, apparently for the Russians as well. Where are we right now, where are the negotiations going?

James: Well in Japan-Russia relations often there’s the sense that nothing really changes, but I think just at the moment there is something really quite new. And that’s after an agreement that was made in November last year: Putin and Abe met in Singapore and they reached an agreement to accelerate talks based on the 1956 joint declaration. Now, that’s significant because it actually represents a bit of a concession from the Japanese side. Now, you won’t find Prime Minister Abe saying it openly, at least not yet, but it seems to be clear that by stressing that agreement, he’s really decided that rather than trying to go for all four of the islands, which are under dispute, instead he’s focused on just two. And the reason why we know that is because in the 1956 agreement, it only mentions two islands: the larger two islands of Iturup and Kunashir and not mentioned in that document whatsoever. It’s only the smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai. So, that seems to indicate that Abe has in mind to go for a two island deal. They also agreed to a new framework for talks, which have been led by the foreign ministers with the deputy foreign ministers also involved, so it does seem to be a new stage in these talks.

Tim: I like the tone and the tenor that is being pursued by Foreign Minister Kono and it seems like this is really beginning to generate some sort of a gel at the diplomatic level, but it seems like at the higher level there’s intransigence.

James: Well, the hope was that after that agreement reached in November there really would be acceleration. That’s what the agreement was, to accelerate based on that agreement. But now, we’ve had two meetings between the foreign ministers, the most recent of which happening in Munich on the sidelines of the Security Conference; we’ve also had a summit in Moscow on the 22nd of January. And really, it’s pretty clear that whilst the Japanese side want to move forward quickly on this, the Russian side have an interesting interpretation of acceleration, it seems to be actually moving really quite slowly and raising a number of additional concerns that they have. So, I think the actual picture is that the Japanese side at the moment are really quite disappointed by the fact that despite the agreement in November, despite the concessions from their side which have also included new wording, they will no longer talk about the islands as being inherent Japanese territory; they also won’t talk about them being illegally occupied, which is the way they were previously described, despite those things, the Russian side doesn’t want to budge.

Tim: It’s not a good idea when you’re at this stage of negotiations to have mistakes in interpretation, wouldn’t you agree? Yeah, so it seems that there’s maybe a willingness or an eagerness on one side that is not represented by the other.

James: I think there is just a fundamental disagreement on what the resolution of this is going to be. The Prime Minister, Abe, still has significant hopes. It seems that he has committed so many times to reaching an agreement on this issue before the end of his time in office and he also, apparently, is going for an outline agreement as soon as June. That’s when President Putin is due to visit Japan for the Osaka G20 summit and that seems to be what Abe has in mind, but that just doesn’t seem to be on the agenda at all for the Russian side.

Tim: You know, I’ve been very hopeful too, especially recently with the negotiations and maybe backing away the concession, as you say, of “let’s focus on the two islands” and I thought that was a big move. And, he didn’t suffer that much damage in Nagatacho for doing that. Unfortunately, it seems like the issues have been split now between “let’s have a peace treaty” and then “let’s talk about the island”. It’s not we want to separate those

two issues and for the Japanese it’s their integral.

James: Absolutely and the Russian side for a time now who said that really what we have here is not so much a territorial issue, it’s more a peace treaty issue. And the Russian position, as set out in September last year by President Putin, is “let’s move to sign a peace treaty”, and he said let’s sign a peace treaty by the end of the year without conditions. And actually the Russians have always been willing to do that, there wasn’t really a change: it’s the Japanese side who says “no we can’t sign a peace treaty untilwe’ve settled the status of those disputed islands”. So, when these talks take place, the Japanese side always wants to talk about the islands and the Russian side says “no, our aim is a peace treaty and our aim is to achieve as much economic cooperation as possible”. So, they really are talking past each other.

Tim: That’s unfortunate, because I’m sure you probably know better than most people the tremendous potential that is available should these countries sign a peace treaty and have normal friendly relationships, I mean, the sky is the limit. What could happen between the two countries?

James: Well, it’s an interesting point on the issue of potential, there’s no question there’s an enormous potential in this relationship, the level of bilateral trade, which last year was just a bit over twenty billion dollars. That’s not really very significant, it’s also well down on the level from 2013, when it was over thirty-five billion dollars. So, there is significant potential but really is that potential going to be unlocked by a peace treaty. Others argued that the real reason why Japanese companies don’t invest in Russia it is more to do with concerns about the legal environment, about the profitability of investments there. And Japanese companies are famously risk-averse. At the moment, there already is no state of war, that was ended in the joint declaration, so others say: “what actually would a peace treaty add”? So, I sometimes wonder whether if this were to be agreed, will there be floods of Japanese investment? I think not. I think that Japanese companies who have already judged that Russia is a good place to invest, they’ve already invested there, like in the Sakhalin 2 project.

Tim: Well, I think I agree with the Ambassador who said that the connections need to be at the lower, at the personal level, to begin to develop this true feeling of friendship and affinity. And, I think it’s lacking, and it’s been lacking artificially for a long time. But, I think a couple of gestures would probably repair that, you know, cross exchanges of students and tourists, and you know, trade routes, that sort of thing.

James: Yeah, and that seems to be something that the Japanese Prime Minister has in mind, but after the summit in January, which I think the Japanese side were very disappointed by, it seems that Abe is considering ways to get things back on track and one of the things that was reported recently in the newspaper was that Japan is now willing to consider canceling the visa requirement for Russian visitors for short term visits. This is something that the Russian side has always wanted, Japan has been very reluctant, now they’re considering it. That would have, I think, a big contribution towards bilateral relations. Abe hopes that it perhaps might lead to concessions from the Russian side when it comes to the territorial issue. I think that’s more doubtful but overall it would surely be a good thing.

Tim: What do you think about this though, if Abe is unsuccessful and he finishes his term at some point in time, a new prime minister comes in and has the same idea: he’s going to be less enthusiastic about pursuing it after the experience that has been offered by the the Prime Minister.

James: I think that’s exactly right. The Prime Minister Abe has been so committed to this issue, he has made a real priority of his foreign policy and he has tried everything to try and make progress on this. So, if it comes to the end of his term in September 2021, as we expect it to be, and no real progress has been achieved, I would fully anticipate that the next Japanese prime minister would come in, look at it, and think I’m not going to make the same mistakes that so much energy, so much effort, was put into it by Prime Minister Abe, it didn’t work out. I think the next prime minister would think essentially this problem cannot be resolved, it’s not worth making the effort again.

Tim: Some of the assumptions that we make are based on information that we gather, that we receive, as a kind of a Western community, even the Western press, and I think we are excluded from a lot of the press that’s going on in the Russian Federation and the news that people are reading there, but it struck me that the level of resentment to handing back these islands in Moscow is, you know, it’s a very heavy barometer for Russia to consider about handing over the islands. And it’s something that was not really relevant or maybe revealed to me until just recently, but apparently that runs very deep.

James: Yeah, after that agreement that was reached in November to accelerate with the talks based on the 1956 agreement, there was a really significant backlash within Russia: there were protests held in the Sakhalin region, which administers the disputed islands, in Moscow.

Tim: In Moscow, it’s a different issue and that’s what took me a little off balance.

James: Also in Moscow and in the Russian media, there were endless stories saying “no, we should not return an inch of Russian territory” and what’s interesting about that is that actually Russia’s position had not changed, Putin since, at the beginning of the 2000s, has repeatedly said “we are willing to abide by the 1956 Joint Declaration”, but until November last year, it was the Japanese side who always said “no, we want more; we want to talk about the other two islands as well”. So, what had happened is that now that Japan was willing to accept a 1956 agreement, more Russians realized what that document actually says. In Article 9 of that document it very clearly states that after the signing of a peace treaty, the two smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai would be transferred. I think lots of Russians didn’t realize: “hand in a second, we have this commitment”. And that’s why there was this backlash. And since then, there have been various surveys within Russia, the latest of which was on the southern Kuril islands and it showed the population there, 96% of them are against the transfer of the islands to Japan. That’s yet another obstacle to a deal.

Tim: So, it appears for sure that President Putin will visit Tokyo or Osaka, at least in June, and all of the vectors are coming to a conclusion there and after that, he might meet Putin again, it might accelerate the issue, but I think the Prime Minister is hoping that by that point we can sit down, we can sign something, or at least agree to a date certain for this peace treaty, which everybody really wants, but it goes with the conditions, as well.

James: So, all of the indications are that Prime Minister Abe had this hope that when Putin comes to Japan for the G20 summit at the end of June that would be the time that they could sign an outline agreement. So it might not actually finalize everything, but it would deal with the most important issues here. So that’s what Abe has had in mind. Now with the disappointment of the talks in January, when Abe went to Moscow but essentially they didn’t really agree on anything and now with the disappointment of that second meeting between Kono and Lavrov, which has just taken place in Munich when, again, no progress was made: there was talk about stormy exchanges. Also, Lavrov refused to agree to a timetable, a fixed timetable, for the talks. That indicates that maybe Abe’s plans for June are not going to work out. So, the question now is he going to give up on this? I think not, I think that he’s put so much energy and effort into it, he’s met already 25 times with Putin. He’s going to keep going. I think it’s in a way more embarrassing for Abe if he says “I’ve failed”, so instead it’d be better to keep going with it and if in the end he’s timed out, you can say “well, you know, I gave it everything and in the end I ran out of time”.

Tim: Yeah, he needs something significant because we’ve got elections coming up; we’ve got the coronation of the new emperor; there’s a lot going on politically. And he wants to, you know, remain Prime Minister.

James: It always seems that that was too optimistic, that talk about holding elections not just for the upper house but also the lower house following the talks in June, and in some way having a boost to Abe’s popularity, that seems very optimistic and now that seems very much off the table.

Tim: Okay, but it’s not gonna be a wash, don’t you agree? That even if it doesn’t come, it’s a stalemate, it doesn’t mean that everything is just going back to status quo. There are certain things that have happened that have a positive beneficial effect for both countries?

James: When we talk about Japan-Russia relations, we always end up talking about this territorial issue, but it’s just one issue in a really important relationship. These countries are close neighbors, they have many things to talk about, and even if the territorial issue is frankly never resolved, there will still be opportunities for cooperation, especially economically, but also just people-to-people exchange, politically, and to an extent in terms of security, as well.

Tim: Can we talk a little bit about LNG? So, apparently the two massive Japanese corporations are working on a facility to produce LNG in Sakhalin Island, is that right?

James: So there’s an existing agreement which is been in operation for some time the Sakhalin 2 project, where two companies, Mitsubishi and Mitsui, are invested and that is operational. What’s happened now is that Novatech, a large private Russian energy company, is pushing for those same two companies Mitsubishi and Mitsui to invest in a new project in the Russian Far North, a new project on the Yamal Peninsula called Arctic LNG 2. And that would be a huge investment and the suggestion is that the Japanese government has said that they would support that investment, perhaps providing up to half of the financing, so that would be a huge step forward in economic relations. The Abe administration would hope that that would get the territorial talks back on track, but the question is that actually going to be profitable or not?

Tim: You know, one of the stumbling bucks whenever you talk about the return of the two Islands is the presence of the US bases in Okinawa. And assuming there was a return of some of the territory that the Americans would also kind of piggyback on to that, and it seems to me that that seems to be a really big sticking point for the Russians, because they don’t want to be absolutely cornered in, and if there was an agreement “no, we will never do that; we’ll never touch that”. I don’t know if something like that could actually be implemented, but it seems to be that that is one of the fears of the Russians, as well don’t you think?

James: I mean when Russian leaders look at Japan one of the first things they see is a US ally. They know that the US has a huge amount of leverage over Japan and that means that they’re leveling of trust in Japan will always be limited. So, when they talk about the possibility of the transfer of these two islands, they are very worried that that could mean that US bases could appear on there. Now, frankly,I don’t think the U.S. military really wants to put a base there, but even the possibility of that occurring is unacceptable for the Russian side, so they would need a strong commitment. Abe, reportedly, has promised Putin he would never allow U.S. facilities there, but it seems the Russian side know Abe’s not going to be there forever. Also, the U.S. has all of this leverage, they could force the hand of a Japanese Prime Minister, so they would need something more secure, they would need a legal guarantee, perhaps excluding those two islands from the US-Japan security treaty.

Tim: Yeah, you’d think that if you were Russia you might think long and hard about that though.

James: Right there’s also the possibility that Russia is using this as an issue to stir up a little bit of tension between Japan and the United States. Russia sees the alliances that the U.S. has as a strength for Washington, thereby any way of perhaps weakening those alliances might help with Russia’s cause.

Tim: Well, here on the show, we were constantly examining the relationship between Japan and the United States and the Status of Forces Agreement, and how Japan benefits from that, but also how the Prime Minister wants to have a stronger country, he wants to have a military force and this tension that exists there is really a delicious mix.

James: Yeah, and the US-Japan relationship remains the cornerstone. Japan is certainly building up its own forces, it is looking for new security partners, but that is a supplement to the relationship with the United States, not to replace it.

Tim: So, that’s the picture of Japan-Russia relationship as it stands right now. President Putin will visit Japan in about four months, please stay tuned because we’re going to watch it too!

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