From Distant Neighbors to Future Partners

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From Distant Neighbors to Future Partners 14.09.2016 12:08

The balance of power in East Asia has undergone a dramatic change as a result of the relative decline of the United States, the spectacular rise of China, and the two decades- long economic stagnation in Japan. As a result, the strategic environment surrounding Russia and Japan has become very fluid and complex, rendering the formulation of a long-term strategic vision extremely difficult. Some troubling consequences of the Second World War and the Cold War remain unresolved, including the division of the Korean peninsula between North and South, the uneasy relations between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Republic of China (Taiwan), and the sovereignty disputes over island territories claimed by China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Russia. The region is also witnessing security threats of more recent origin – most notably North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and competing territorial sovereignty and maritime border claims in the East and South China Seas. Every one of these is a serious cause of tension and can threaten the peaceful and stable development of major-power relations at the global level.

Russian and Japanese leaders face daunting challenges at home as well. As Russia was about to come out of the post-Soviet decades of political turmoil, economic stagnation, and social deterioration, the Putin administration’s defensive efforts to put a stop to the eastward expansion of NATO, culminating in the incorporation of major-power relations at the global level. Russian and Japanese leaders face daunting challenges at home as well. As Russia was about to come out of the post-Soviet decades of political turmoil, economic stagnation, and social deterioration, the Putin administration’s defensive efforts to put a stop to the eastward expansion of NATO, culminating in the incorporation of Crimea and military support for pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, were met with sanctions by the United States and its Western allies, which, along with the plummeting energy prices, plunged Russia into serious economic

difficulties. The Russian people have shown their well-known resilience in the face of daily hardships and against the West’s attempt to isolate and weaken Russia. However, the mounting economic problems at home cannot but limit Moscow’s foreign policy and domestic policy initiatives, including the pivot to the east, i.e., deepening of relations with East Asian countries, to compensate for the deteriorating relations with the West.

Japan also faces a number of serious foreign and domestic policy challenges. Following two decades of economic stagnation known as the “lost decades,” the Abe administration launched a three-pronged economic revitalization program, known as “Abenomics,” including depreciation of the national currency, easing of money supply, and structural reform. Despite a few signs of economic upturn, the last of the three “arrows” of “Abenomics” has failed by most accounts, the corporate and consumer confidence in economic recovery has slumped, and Japan has fallen into another economic recession. The nation’s declining and ageing population also threatens to sap what strongly embraced their government’s call for patriotic solidarity. On the international front, the Abe administration has adopted a new security policy under the banner of “active pacifism.” The government has taken steps to expand Japan’s role in the bilateral alliance with the United States by re-interpreting the nation’s constitution to allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ participation in collective self-defense actions abroad, passing legislation to implement the revised national security policy, adopting new guidelines for defense cooperation with the United States, and significantly increasing its defense budget. The Abe administration has also embarked on a major reorganization and repositioning of the defense forces to counter the increasingly assertive China and its aggressive behavior in the East and the South China Seas. However, a strong majority of the public remains apprehensive about the change to their constitution through re-interpretation and concerned about Japan being entrapped in alliance-driven foreign war that does not necessarily threaten their own security. Meanwhile, Japan is struggling to deal with the legacy of the Second World War, including the territorial disputes with China, Korea, and Russia and the issues of apology and compensation for the victims of Japanese wartime who were forced to work for wartime Japanese industries.

Under these circumstances, neither Russia nor Japan has been able to develop a strategic vision for their long-term relationship, much less for their engagement in multilateral dialogue for the establishment of a new global order. Without such a vision, can the two countries overcome the legacy of past history and forge a relationship of trust and friendship, a requirement for any two nations that define themselves as a great world power and contributor to global peace and prosperity? What steps should they take to meet this requirement and live up to their self-expectations? Nor can Russian and Japanese leaders ignore the growing importance of domestic public opinion regarding their foreign policies. What is the state of public opinion in both countries toward each other? Do the ordinary citizens desire improved relations? This essay is an attempt at answering these questions.


Discordant lessons of history and territorial impasse


One of the most important reasons why most Japanese feel very little affinity toward Russia and view Japan- Russia relations as bad is related to the post-WWII Soviet/Russian occupation of the small islands known in Japan as the Northern Territories and in Russia as the southern Kurils. As long as Russia and Japan remain at loggerheads over the territorial dispute and unable to conclude a peace treaty, the fog of history is unlikely to lift.

The Soviet and Russian governments have maintained that the islands are legitimate spoils of the war according to the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and an integral part of their national territory, and most Russians support their government’s position and are opposed to transferring any of the islands to Japan. For example, the Levada Center’s survey in the 1990s through 2011 showed only 4-11 percent of respondents supported the idea of territorial transfer to Japan and an overwhelming majority (67-90%) was opposed. The Japanese government has persistently claimed that the islands are their inherent territory and the Soviet/Russian control of the islands since 1945 is illegal and unjust in as much they were not included in the territories Japan had acquired by violence and greed but agreed to surrender under the terms of the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which the Soviet Union did not sign. It is not the intent of this paper to pass judgment on the legitimacy of either side’s claims. Rather, it is simply to point out what the Japanese government has informed their people and what the Japanese people have believed and continue to believe, which, along with other reasons, is at the basis of their negative attitudes

toward Russia.

Former Russian ambassador to Japan Alexander Panov maintains that beyond the territorial issue, “there are no other obstacles preventing Russia and Japan from establishing genuinely partnership relations.” He goes on to say, “The objective reality is that it is highly unlikely that the national interests of Russia and Japan will come into conflict over any principal aspect of their relationship, now or in the future – be it politics, economics, or security.” He even states, “The Ukraine-Crimea problem does not affect any serious interests of Japan,” “Russia does not pose a threat to Japan,” “[T]here is no Japanese threat to Russia,” and “Rather, there is mutual desire to ensure stability in the Asia-Pacific region and, above all, in Northeast Asia.”

So, how heavy is the fog of history and is it likely to lift in the near future? Panov laments, “In the history of their (Russian-Japanese) bilateral relations, especially those related to the territorial dispute, numerous attempts to resolve it have all ended in partial or complete failure,” which resulted in “the frustration on the Japanese side” and this “impeded further development of relations.” He nonetheless observes that many Russians “see the need to build a new framework, clarifying the strategic significance of this relationship, on the way to boosting economic relations and rejecting any ultimatum related to territorial matters.” Minister Abe “made an abrupt shift in Japan’s approach,” to restore the dialogue between Tokyo and Moscow because, according to Panov, the Japanese leader wanted to “find a way to solve the territorial problem” and also “prevent the emergence of a strong anti-Japan partnership between Russia and China.”5 He reminds us that President Putin, in his meeting with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in 2001, “underscored the presence of Article 9 of the Joint Declaration of 1956, which anticipated the transfer of Habomai and Shikotan Islands to Japan, following the signing of a peace treaty, and proposed that the two sides begin discussion of this article.” The former ambassador observes, however, that this “radical change in attitude toward the article did not evoke an adequate response from the Japanese leadership” and the stalemate continued. It was against this background, Panov reminds us, that President Putin suggested in March 2012 that he was willing to negotiate the issue according to a “hikiwake” formula.7 The Russian president’s proposal prompted the Japanese to speculate about the meaning of the judo term, meaning “draw” or “tie,” with some observers suggesting that Russia might be willing to surrender the Habomais and Shikotan to Japan while retaining control of the other disputed islands and others wondering if Putin was hinting that the two sides might agree to a 50-50 split of the entire land area of the disputed islands.

Such speculations cannot be easily dismissed. Putin’s love of judo is well known and his reference to the judo terminology is not only symbolic but also personal to the Russian president. One might go so far as to say that his outlook on life has been profoundly affected by judo. He believes that judo teaches its practitioners a philosophy and the virtue of respect that he admires. In an interview in December 2015, Putin stated, “[I]t’s not a team, you can’t hide behind a team mate, a coach... You have to face your opponent. Philosophy of Judo, in my opinion, is very deep... Respect to your opponent, coach, team. It’s an extremely important thing. It is called ‘soft way.’ It’s not sharp, but reliably effective”.

Former high-ranking Japanese diplomat Kazuhiko Togo observes that Russia and Japan have so far missed an opportunity to find a mutually acceptable path toward territorial resolution and a peace treaty according to Putin’s “hikiwake” formula, and provides a rather gloomy prospect for a breakthrough on the territorial issue. Yet, he maintains that if Russia and Japan are to reactivate their negotiations, they would need to embrace the principle behind the “hikiwake” formula, which is that neither side loses.

He then suggests that a “reasonably clear” answer could be found in the so-called “two plus alpha” formula, whereby Russia would agree to transfer control over the Habomai islets and Shikotan Island to Japan, and the two sides would negotiate what the “alpha” might be. Ambassador Togo then refers to a proposal he jointly issued with Ambassador Panov in 2013, according to which Russia would agree to transfer the islands of “Habomai and Shikotan (to Japan), as prescribed in the 1956 Joint Declaration, and establish a special joint economic zone on Kunashiri and Etorofu, with a special joint-legal status acceptable to both”. In support of this formula, Ambassador Togo reminds us that President Putin “became the first president who officially acknowledged the 1956 Joint Declaration.”


Limited human contacts between the Russians and the Japanese


Meanwhile, ordinary Russian and Japanese citizens have very limited contact and there does not appear to be any significant desire to change this poor state of relations at the people’s level. Their mutual perceptions and expectations are far from ideal for improving relations between their countries. The attitudes of the Russian people and the Japanese people toward each other’s country are lukewarm at best and quite one-sided, with the Russians holding substantially more favorable views of Japan than the Japanese of Russia.

The Levada Center’s public opinion polls in the 2000s and early 2010s showed that between 67-82 percent of respondents held “very good” or “mostly good” attitudes toward Japan in general in comparison with only between 7-20 percent of respondents who held “bad” or “very bad” attitudes. According to the Center’s surveys conducted in 2005, 2010, 2015, and 2016, only between 3-6 percent of the respondents named Japan as one of the five countries considered having “the most unfriendly and hostile relations towards Russia”. In contrast, public opinion polls in Japan over the years reveal that the Japanese people feel very little affinity toward Russia. The Japanese Cabinet Office’s surveys in 2005, 2010, and 2015 showed that the respondents with favorable attitudes toward Russia accounted for only 16.2 percent, 14.0 percent, and 17.4 percent, respectively, of those polled. In contrast, those with no favorable attitudes toward Russia represented 77.6 percent, 82.4 percent, and 79.3 percent. However, most Japanese realize that Japan-Russia relations are “not good” but they also want their relations to improve.


Constrained economic relations: the potential vs. the



Russian and Japanese economies are largely complementary, yet their bilateral trade and investment relations are very limited. On the one hand, Russia, with its enormous energy and other natural resource endowments, is a very luring trade partner for the resource-poor Japan.

On the other hand, Russia is attracted to Japan’s enormous capital and industrial technology, as well as its high-quality industrial and consumer goods, which would be greatly beneficial to Russia’s development. In the above cited publication, Ambassador Panov observes, “There is little prospect that the two will compete for markets. Indeed, it seems very unlikely that any sort of economic conflict will arise between the two countries.” He is disappointed that the bilateral trade is at a substantially lower level than their potential would indicate, with Japan accounting for only about 4 percent of Russia’s overall trade turnover and Russia’s share in Japan’s trade representing a mere 1.8 percent of the latter’s global trade.”

How has the Ukraine crisis affected Russia’s relations with Japan? According to Panov the two countries’ trade and investment relations have not been impacted to any significant degree. However, Japan’s participation in the U.S.-led sanctions against Russia has led to growing Russian antipathy toward Japan. Japan’s rather symbolic sanctions against Russia do not appear to have had a significant impact on Russia’s material or political interests, but we should see them against the backdrop of Russia’s increasingly critical view of the West. Indeed, Japan’s role in the Western sanctions is seen as evidence of Japan’s lack of independence from the United States. It is also important to see this issue against the background of Japan’s persistent territorial demands against Russia. Panov reminds us: “Before making a fateful decision for both countries, it is extremely important to change, in a fundamental manner, the character of Russo-Japanese relations. This change must involve achieving a high level of mutual trust and cooperation in all spheres, including public opinion in both states, so that a compromise decision on the territorial problem is not interpreted as an unjustified concession and a defeat at the hands of the negotiating partner.” Indeed, a recent review of Soviet/Russia-Japan relations since the 1970s reveals that the basic character of the bilateral relations has not changed despite the dramatically altered global and regional political and economic dynamic and that this is largely due to Japan’s myopic focus on the territorial dispute and its failure to appreciate the strategic value, in regional and global terms, that it could gain from improved relations with Russia.


Responsible leadership: morality and pragmatism


Given the uncertain strategic environment surrounding Russia and Japan today, the lopsided mutual perceptions of their people, the discordant history lessons the two countries have learned and handed down from generation to generation, and the glaring gap between the potential and the reality of bilateral economic ties, what should the two countries do to overcome the legacy of history and build a future-oriented relationship?

What is required is moral courage and pragmatism in Moscow and in Tokyo to strike a mutually acceptable compromise on the territorial dispute based on a political wisdom that appreciates the long-term strategic value of substantially improved relationship between Russia

and Japan. Both sides need to take steps to cultivate robust domestic popular support for a compromise on the island territories. Such a compromise would be historic as it would break the impasse the two sides have for decades been unable to break out of. For a compromise solution

to gain popular support and leave no sense of injustice and unfairness on either side, it should not be seen as a sacrifice on the part of the public of either country as a top-down decision dictated to them. Instead, it should be understood as a step toward expanded relations that are visibly beneficial to both sides for generations to come.

Back in 2005, a Russian colleague and I wrote an oped for the International Herald Tribune-Asahi Shimbun, in which we called for political wisdom in both Moscow and Tokyo and offered some ideas to be considered for territorial resolution and a peace treaty. I summarize the gist of the proposal below because I believe it still merits consideration by both sides:

●●Moscow would agree to return the Habomai and Shikotan islands to Japan within a reasonable period of time; both sides would commit themselves to resolving the dispute over the other two islands;

●●Tokyo would agree that during this “transition period’’ it would not raise the issue of the remaining islands in any official talks with Moscow;

●●Current Russian residents on the disputed islands would continue to live there during the transition period and that former Japanese residents of those islands would be allowed to visit their ancestral land freely, and other Japanese would also enjoy this right;

●●Japan would invest both public and private funds in the substantial improvement of economic and social infrastructure during the transition period and beyond;

At the end of the transition period, Japan would exercise sovereign jurisdiction in the Habomai islets and Shikotan island but that Russian residents and their future children would be allowed to live there as permanent residents of Japan; and,

During the transition period, the criminal, civil, and other legal codes of each country would apply to their respective citizens on the islands, and disputes involving Russian and Japanese residents would be submitted to a court in either country’s jurisdiction to be selected by the litigants or to a special court to be established by Russia and Japan.

To improve the chances of ideas such as the above being supported by those in Russia and Japan who stand to gain materially from improved relations, economic ties between the two countries need to be substantially expanded. Recent initiatives in Russia for easing both domestic and foreign investment in its Far Eastern territories should be backed by sustained political support from Moscow and financial investment by both Russian sources and Japanese sources. Although the Japanese business community has expressed interest in Russian initiatives in the Far East, several things must happen if they are to be convinced that their investment will produce results. Priorities must be placed on the elimination of bureaucratic hurdles, reduction in administrative costs, enactment and effective implementation of legislation for tax incentives and other benefits for potential investors, and pursuit of joint development projects backed by commitment at the highest level of political leadership in Moscow and Tokyo.

Social contacts between the Russian and Japanese people must also be expanded – and substantially so. There are currently modest numbers of Russian residents and visitors in Japan who are enjoying their social, cultural, educational, employment, and even marriage opportunities in the host country, but their numbers need to be expanded substantially if these opportunities are to have a significant impact on the mutual perceptions of the public at large. The number of Japanese residents and visitors in Russia is very limited, and obviously this too needs to change. Ecotourism and cultural exchanges are among the elements of Russia’s soft power that are attractive to ordinary Japanese citizens. Russia and Japan should also cooperate in expanding educational opportunities for young Japanese. Only through substantially expanded and regular contacts will the Russians and Japanese cease to see each other as “distant neighbors” and view each other as “future partners”.

Tsuneo AKAHA


Director of the Center for East Asian Studies

Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey