Still Seeking to Normalize Relations with Russia

Still working to normalize relations damaged during the Russo-Japanese War

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Japan-Russia Relations: Toward a Peace Treaty and Beyond

Sergueï Lavrov, courtesy of  thierry ehrmann
What will it take to normalize Japanese-Russian relations? Yoko Hirose recommends 1) resolving the two countries’ Northern Territories disputes, ideally by ratifying a long overdue peace treaty; 2) cooperating more closely in the Asia-Pacific region; 3) balancing the Russo-Chinese relationship more adroitly, and much more.

By Yoko Hirose for Stimson Center

This is a chapter of the book “Japan’s Global Diplomacy: Views from the Next Generation” published by the Stimson Center in March 2015.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, relations between the Russian Empire and Japan were generally positive. However, Russian expansionism threatened Japan’s security, and conflicts of interest over the Korean Peninsula and Manchukuo caused the Russo-Japanese War. Japan’s victory in 1905 solidified its position as a major modern state in East Asia; however, the relationship between Japan and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, later Russia) was further strained by World War II. At the conclusion of the war, (1) the USSR broke the Soviet–Japanese Neutrality Pact, (2) Japan allied with the United States during the following Cold War and (3) the Northern Territories became disputed territory between Japan and the USSR. [2]

Upon collapse of the USSR in 1991, Russia was torn in multiple directions economically and politically, and its attitude toward foreign countries outside of the former USSR countries was often confused and disjointed. Then-President Boris Yeltsin agreed to discuss the territorial dispute over all four islands. The Tokyo Declaration, signed by Yeltsin and then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa in October 1993, recognized the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which noted “prior returning of 2 islands,” and agreed that both sides would negotiate the territorial dispute in accordance with the prior agreement. [3] This suggested that two of the four islands, Habomai and Shikotan, might be returned. The Tokyo Declaration laid a foundation for the Irkutsuk Statement signed between then-President Vladimir Putin and then-Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in March 2001, in which the two leaders agreed to continue negotiations based on the 1993 Tokyo Declaration. [4]

For many years, Japan’s Russia policy has focused on negotiations regarding the Northern Territories, keeping distance from issues such as Russia’s internal affairs. This limited the Japanese government’s policy options for negotiating the territorial dispute: Japan could only demand the return of “all four islands,” because the Japanese government maintains that the Northern Territories are illegally occupied by Russia and remain the inherent territory of Japan. [5]

Putin was and continues to seem favorable toward a resolution of the territorial dispute. Though resolutions involving the reduction of territory would be controversial, Putin has enough political capital to ensure consensus for such an action. Putin has suggested that the territorial resolution should be done on a fifty-fifty basis – split the disputed territory such that both sides gain equally. Russia has resolved other territorial disputes with neighboring countries in this way, such as China and Norway. The Japanese government thus hoped that Putin’s leadership may offer an opportunity for recovering the Northern Territories.

On November 14, 2004, while Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov were visiting Japan, Lavrov stated that Russia, as state-successor of the Soviet Union, recognized the Declaration of 1956 and was ready to negotiate with Japan on this basis. This statement further fueled domestic Japanese expectations that the Northern Territories may be recovered.

The economy and trade is one area in which Japan-Russia relations have been growing (as shown in Figure 1). Specifically, Japan-Russia relations began to shift qualitatively in 2010. The Japanese government revised its basic diplomatic policy toward Russia and suspended efforts toward the resolution of the territorial dispute. Instead, Japanese policy focused on expanding and deepening relations with Russia in all aspects, including the political, security, economic, energy, technical and environmental domains. Trade relations between Russia and Japan hit $32 billion in 2013 – a 5.3 percent increase compared to 2012, and the volume of trade was largely expected to continue to increase in 2014. Figures from January and February 2014 show a 6 percent increase from the same period in 2013. Mineral resources accounted for 60 percent of Russia’s exports to Japan, and cars accounted for 80 percent of Japan’s exports to Russia. Although the trade structure is still simple (as shown in Figure 2), Tokyo and Moscow have been trying to diversify the bilateral trade. Economic relations continued to progress positively until 2014, when the Ukraine crisis became serious.

Trends in Japan, courtesy of the Stimson Center
Since returning to office in December 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has intensified his efforts to build a personal relationship with Putin. Between December 2012 through December 2014, Abe and Putin have met seven times. Abe even attended the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, when many Western leaders refused to attend in protest of the Russian human rights issues. It appears that Abe had hoped to strengthen his relationship with Putin enough to leverage it to possibly resolve the Northern Territories issue during his time in office. At a minimum, Abe is interested in moving Japan’s policy toward Russia beyond its exclusive focus on the Northern Territories issue.

Both Japan and Russia have softened their attitudes toward the territorial dispute, agreeing upon a policy for accelerating negotiations of the Northern Territories at a summit meeting in April 2013. The Japanese government demonstrated its willingness to accept the “return of the two islands of Habomai and Shikotan before the other islands in the territories” if Russia recognized all four islands to be part of Japanese territory. Putin favored a fifty-fifty, or “hikiwake” (draw), resolution. [6]

He explained, “A Judo-ka (Judo player) must take a brave step forward not only to win, but also to avoid losing. We don’t have to achieve victory. In this situation, we have to reach an acceptable compromise.”

Structure of Japan-Russia Trade
In November 2013, in their first-ever “two-plus-two (foreign and defense)” ministerial meeting, Russia and Japan agreed upon a framework for a comprehensive partnership on security affairs. This framework is significant, because Russia is only the third country with which Japan has created such a frame work, even though Russia has never had such relations with other US allies.

This framework is expected to expand the agenda for potential cooperation between Japan and Russia and effectively deepen the relationship. However, the China factor is one of the barriers preventing Japan from deepening its relations with Russia, because China maintains a tough stance on Japan, while China and Russia share an “anti-America” and “anti-unipolar world” point of view, as well as their perception of post-World War II history. They insist that as big powers in Asia, they made the peace in the Asia-Pacific region after the war. Their plans to hold a joint ceremony in 2015 on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II imply that Russia and China maintain a stance against Japan.

In addition, poor US-Russia relations have created a dilemma for Japan. Japan is expected by the US to support its ally, while Russia appeals for Japan to act independently. This dilemma has been played out throughout the Ukraine crisis in three stages: the Euro-Maidan movement (November 2013 to February 2014); the Crimea Annexation by Russia (February to March 2014) and the crisis in Eastern Ukraine (March 2014 to present).[8]

Since the Ukraine crisis became serious in 2014, the US and the European Union (EU) have activated sanctions against Russia, gradually increasing pressure over time. The Japanese government has been reluctant to follow suit, in the hopes of maintaining positive relations with Russia; however, as a G7 member, the Japanese government could not entirely avoid activating some sanctions. In the first stage, immediately following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Japan only activated very light sanctions upon Russia, such that Putin even noted his admiration for Japan’s actions.

In the second stage, the Japanese government strengthened the level of sanctions following US President Barack Obama’s visit to Japan in April. Russia angrily responded that the Japanese action was proof that Japan’s foreign policy simply followed the US. Then-Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s scheduled visit to Russia was postponed, as was Putin’s scheduled visit to Japan for autumn 2014. Yet even at this dire level of relations between the two countries, the personal relationship between Abe and Putin has remained positive and hopeful.

The two leaders exchanged phone calls on each other’s birthdays in September and October 2014, discussing birthday celebrations, the Ukraine crisis and potential meetings. They sat together for about 10 minutes at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Milan in October 2014 and conducted a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Beijing in November 2014. The two have agreed to improve ties despite the sanctions, as well as reschedule Putin’s visit to Japan for 2015.

At the end of 2014, Russia faced an economic crisis as a result of the rapid decline of the Russian ruble, a fall in the price of oil, the economic sanctions imposed following the Ukraine crisis, illegal monopoly of wealth by a small number of persons, speculative actions, capital flights and so on. During this time, Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) won the parliamentary elections, and Abe was reelected as prime minister. The Russian government welcomed this result in the hopes that a stable Japanese government could enable further improvement in the bilateral relations.

Moving forward, Japan will continue to formulate its Russia policy independent of the Northern Territories dispute as China, which maintains a strong anti-Japan stance, deepens its own relationship with Russia.

Challenges for Achieving Policy Objectives

At the fundamental level, without a peace treaty, it is difficult for Japan to have positive relations with Russia in a sustainable manner. Moreover, Russia’s domestic and international actions have isolated it from the rest of the world. In this context, Putin’s good will toward Abe demonstrates the potential for the Japan-Russia relationship to overcome the potential challenges, which include the following:

The Northern Territories

For Japan, the resolution of the Northern Territories dispute is necessary to complete a Japan-Russia Peace Treaty and improve relations between the two countries. However, their stances on the issue are vastly divergent – Japan demands all four islands, while Russia’s position is that “there is no territorial dispute” or Japan should “negotiate for two islands to seek a compromise” – with little prospect of their respective positions getting closer.

Russia’s contempt for the Japan-US alliance

Although the Japan-US alliance is the foremost relationship within Japan’s diplomatic policy, Russia has often criticized the alliance, calling Japan a vassal state of the US. Japan finds itself in an impossible bind. On one hand, the Japan- US alliance is at the core of Japan’s foreign and security policy. On the other hand, as long as Japan remains a US ally, Russia may not take Japan seriously enough to engage with it on any issues.

Ukraine crisis and sanctions on Russia

The Ukraine crisis has been a serious obstacle for Japan-Russia relations, as Japan, as a G7 member and US ally, could not avoid activating sanctions on Russia. Many important bilateral events have been canceled, including Putin’s visit to Japan. Although Putin and Abe maintain positive relations, Japan-Russia relations are unlikely to move forward as long as Russia does not improve its actions concerning Ukraine.

Cooperation with the US

For Japan, cooperation with the US is important in overcoming its challenges with Russia. The following are areas for cooperation with the US for 2015 and beyond:

Preserve the world order

Japan and the US must cooperate to ensure continued peace and stability for the world by supporting democratization, liberalization and economic development. There are many nondemocratic regimes among the former USSR, including Russia, so Japan and the US should support Russian democratization and development efforts.

Maintain credible deterrence

Russia’s international actions have dangerously defied international law. Therefore, Japan and the US should jointly maintain deterrence against Russia on the basis of the Japan-US Security Treaty. In this context, Japan and the US should not allow Russia’s actions concerning the Ukraine crisis to pass without consequence.

Restrain the alliance between Russia and China

In recent years, Russia and China have deepened their relationship in various aspects. For example, they agreed on a large-scale natural gas trade agreement in 2014, and they are using regional frameworks for economic cooperation such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) to nurture relations. In addition, they share the same stance on international events, often against Western values.

However, mutual distrust between Russia and China is deep-rooted, out of a struggle for a sphere of influence in Central Asia. The strongest political aim shared between them is to create a multipolar world against the United States’ unipolar dominance, not only economically but also politically. [9] Japan and the US should cooperate to restrain any joint actions of Russia and China.

Policy Recommendations

Create a flexible policy toward Russia

Japan’s policy toward Russia has been too preoccupied by the Northern Territories dispute. This preoccupation has caused Japan to expand its economic relations with and assistance to Russia in the hopes of drawing out concession on the Northern Territories issue from Russia, to no avail. Japan needs a more flexible policy toward Russia that allows Tokyo to remain firm on the territorial issues while taking advantage of the potential opportunities for cooperation.

Encourage international norms, such as democracy, rule of law and so forth. Japan must conduct its diplomacy with a firm attitude as a peaceful sovereign state, to avoid double standards and criticisms of its independence. For example, Japan’s soft approach regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea was inconsistent with the Japanese policy to recover the entire Northern Territories. [10]

A set of policies that is consistent with the international norms that Japan upholds would enable Japan to negotiate the Northern Territories on an equal footing with Russia. Develop Japan-Russia relations. Japan should seek to explore opportunities for cooperation with Russia. Potential areas include the following: security cooperation through confidence-building measures such as joint military exercises and activities outside East Asia such as prevention of drug trafficking from Afghanistan, reconstruction in Afghanistan, and responses to crises in the Middle East; economic cooperation through the development of the Russian Far East and East Siberia and energy initiatives for oil, gas, coal and nuclear power, as well as Japan providing technical and financial support in areas such as transportation, medical care, urban environmental systems and ecology; cultural exchange through sports and personnel exchange, such as increasing the number of Russian students in Japan; and enhancement of practical business relationships in fields such as medicine, technical support, fishing and crime control.

Seek regional cooperation with Russia

Alongside Japan and China, Russia is a major power in the Asia-Pacific. Regional cooperation benefits the entire Asia-Pacific with peace and prosperity. Japan should seek to improve not only bilateral relations with Russia, but also regional and global cooperation with Russia. Following the Ukraine Crisis, Russia shifted its diplomatic focus from the West to Asia. [11] This has implications beyond Russia-China relations; as an Asian state, Japan should take advantage of this opportunity.

Avoid Russia’s isolation while limiting its policy options

Russian leaders consider themselves to be the victim of betrayal by Western countries, especially after the Perestroika period. [12] Russian leaders often criticize the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as attempting to constrain Russia’s power by citing many incidents in which Russia felt betrayed by the West. [13] Most recently, for example, Russia perceived the Obama administration as insincere in its pledge to “reset” bilateral relations and repair US-Russia relations from the damage done during the Bush administration. [14] Similarly, Russia regards NATO’s eastern expansion as breaking its promise of not expanding east of integrated Germany. [15] Japan must be careful in its relationship with Russia so that Russia is not isolated by the world, creating opportunities for when Russia chooses to observe the international norms. This would build mutual confidence-building and perhaps encourage the resolution of the Northern Territories dispute.

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1. Japan. Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). Gaiko-Seisho 2014 (Diplomatic Blue Book). Chapter 2, Clause 5: “Russia, Central Asia and the Caucuses.” April 2014. Accessed January 2, 2015.

2. The Northern Territories consist of four islands located off the northeast coast of the Nemuro Peninsula of Hokkaido. They are: Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu islands. Russia has kept effective control on the Northern Territories, arguing that they are included in the Kurile Islands.

3. Japan. MOFA. “ Nichiro Kankei ni Kansuru Tōkyōsengen (The Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia relations).” October 13, 1993. Accessed January 2, 2015.

4. Japan. MOFA. “Irkutsk Statement by the Prime Minister of Japan and the President of the Russian Federation on the Continuation of Future Negotiations on the Issue of a Peace Treaty.” March 25, 2001. Accessed January 2, 2015.

5. The demand for the return of all four islands is not old but has been shared by Japanese people in the process of negotiations for the territorial dispute. It is not clear when the Japanese government made its decision on its official position; however, the idea first idea appeared officially when then-mayor of Nemuro city Ando Sekiten mentioned it in 1945. Japan. MOFA. “Northern Territory Issues.” March 1, 2011. Accessed January 2, 2015.

6. The “prior returning of two islands,” which is based on the “Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration” of 1956, was also considered during the Yoshiro Mori administration (e.g. Russo-Japanese summit meeting in 2000, etc.); however, this is not considered to be the same as the fifty-fifty resolution to the Japanese government, because the two islands are much smaller than fifty percent of the size of the Northern Territory. Some people argue the “returning of three islands” is the best option from the perspective of a fifty-fifty resolution. Akihiro Iwashita. Hoppou Ryodo Mondai (The Northern Territory Problem), (Tokyo: Chuokoron-Shinsha, 2005). Foreign Minister Taro Aso supported this idea in 2006.

7. “Putin proposes starting over in negotiations over Northern Territories.” Asahi Shimbun,March 2, 2012. Accessed February 4, 2015.

8. The three stages have been the following: (1) Euro-maidan movement to “revolution”; (2) Crimea annexation by Russia; (3) Crisis in Eastern Ukraine including Donetsk and Lugansk separatist movements, elections and declaration of independence, civil war with Ukrainian army, Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 crash, Russian intervention and so forth. To succeed on efforts (2) and (3), Russia made use of the new strategy “Hybrid War.”

9. Rachman, Gideon. “China and Russia push back against the US.” Financial Times. November19 2014. Accessed January 15, 2015.

10. For example, see Nishikawa, Megumi. “Crimea closer to Japan than we might think.” Mainichi Shinbun, March 22, 2014. Accessed January 14, 2014.

11. Kucera, Joshua. “Putin Signals Russia’s Shift to Asia.” The Diplomat. October 31, 2014. Accessed December 5, 2014.

12. Perestroika means “restructuring” and is a program of political and economic reforms carried out in the USSR in 1986 under the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev. He had never anticipated the collapse of the USSR, and it was not successful due to economic and national problems, opposition from conservatives and so forth, which ultimately led to the collapse of USSR at the end of 1991.

13. Such ideas have been considered by many Russian leaders, and there are many papers and books about it. For example, see Russia and the West: The 21st Century Security Environment. Arbatov, Aleksei Georgievich, Karl Kaiser, and Robert Legvold, eds. (M.E. Sharpe, 1999).

14. The Reset policy had some achievements in the beginning. See White House. “U.S.-Russia Relations: ‘Reset’ Fact Sheet.” June 24, 2010. Accessed January 4, 2015. . However, the good mood did not last for long and Russia soon grew suspicious of US ambitions. See Weber, Peter. “Obama’s ‘reset’ with Russia: What went wrong?” The Week . September 3, 2013. Accessed January 4, 2015. Shuster, Simon. “A Failed Russia ‘Reset’ Haunts Obama in Europe.” Time , June 3, 2014. Accessed January 4, 2015. .

15. It was not easy for the USSR leaders, or even Gorbachev who started Perestroika, to accept the East-West Germany integration; however, Gorbachev allowed it because the continued existence of West Germany meant NATO expansion. Gorbachev has remained very suspicious of the West’s policy on Russia and recently warned about the Western stance towards Russia on the occasion of the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Oltermann, Philip. “As Germany Marks Fall of the Berlin Wall, Gorbachev Warns of New Cold War.” The Observer. November 9, 2014. Accessed December 7, 2014.

Yoko Hirose is associate professor at Keio University. Her area of research is the countries in former Soviet Union, with particular focus on Caucasus region. Between 2013- 2014, she was a visiting fellow at Harriman Center of Columbia University.

Editor’s note:

This is a chapter of the book “Japan’s Global Diplomacy: Views from the Next Generation” (edited by Yuki Tatsumi), which was published by the Stimson Center in March 2015.


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