During their summit meetings in Nagato City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, on Dec. 15 and in Tokyo on Dec. 16 Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on joint economic activities on the four Northern Islands but are seen to have failed to make progress in the territorial issue. We interviewed three experts for their assessment of the meetings.
Decision to return two islands still possible
Interview with Taisuke Abiru, research fellow and project manager at the Tokyo Foundation, by senior writer Toshiyuki Ito
I disagree with the view that Russia has no intention to return the Northern Territories. President Putin may yet make a decision to return two islands. The following became clear from the summit meetings: (1) Russia’s bottom line is the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Communique; (2) the return of Habomai and Shikotan will take place after the confidence-building process; and (3) exclusion from application of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty will be the condition for their return.
In an uncertain security environment engendered by a rising China and the forthcoming Trump administration’s unpredictable Asia policy, it is better for Japan to have more foreign policy options and to strengthen strategic relations with Russia. At the same time, Russia also wants to have multiple options and regards as risky excessive dependence on China in Far East development. The bilateral summit reflects the importance it attaches to Japan.
Putin will not make a decision on the territorial issue before he seeks reelection as president in 2018. He will be president until 2024 if he is reelected. On the other hand, Abe’s term as LDP president may last until 2021. The summit marks a good starting point for the Abe administration to execute a long-term strategy under the “new approach.” Now is the time for the Japanese people to look hard at reality and decide whether the goal is the return of four islands or a final solution to the territorial issue.
Profitability should be top priority in economic cooperation
Interview with Toru Nishihama, chief economist at Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, by senior writer Tatsuya Sasaki
Russia is in economic difficulties as a result of falling oil prices and sanctions imposed by the Western countries. Moscow’s failure to adequately provide for Far East development may give rise to political instability. Securing economic cooperation from Japan will enable the Russian government to show that it is promoting development there.
The eight-point cooperation plan brilliantly focuses on the difficult areas Russia is grappling with. The biggest problem for Russia is moving away from a resources-dependent economy, so Russia looks to Japan for investment. On the other hand, Russia’s erratic legal and taxation systems discourage Japanese companies from doing business there. The two governments need to resolve these issues.
The economic cooperation plan agreed upon by the two leaders does not simply consist of aid projects. Many projects will involve private sector companies, which are not expected to ignore profitability. It is hoped that the business sector will take a level-headed look at the merits and risks.
“Special system” is unrealistic
Interview with Dmitry Streltsov, professor of international relations at Moscow State University, by Mikoto Hata in Moscow
Russia regards the agreement to start discussions on joint economic activities as a diplomatic achievement because Japan used to refuse to even engage in discussions, claiming this would constitute recognition of Russian sovereignty. On the other hand, many Japanese companies interested in the fishing and marine product processing industries will benefit from doing business on the four Northern Islands.
However, I think the “special system” Prime Minister Abe talked about is unrealistic. Regardless of whether the expression “sovereignty” is used or not, economic activities will have to be conducted under Russian law, for the simple reason that Russia currently has administrative control.
The presence of Japanese companies in the Northern Territories will not only result in closer Japan-Russia relations but will also indirectly demonstrate Japan’s influence in these islands internationally. Closer cooperative relations may create in Russia an environment more conducive to the return of the islands.
However, it is improbable for Russia to make compromises beyond the 1956 Joint Communique on returning Habomai and Shikotan. Furthermore, Putin will never return the two islands leaving the issue of sovereignty over Kunashiri and Etorofu unresolved.
Since the word “territory” often arouses emotions on both sides, opting for softer expressions, such as “delineation of national boundary,” may improve the atmosphere of the negotiations.