Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held two days of summit meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In connection with the long-pending Northern Territories issue, the two leaders agreed to start discussions on joint economic activities. Will negotiations giving priority to economic cooperation ultimately lead to a solution to the territorial issue? We interviewed three experts on the significance of Japan-Russia rapprochement in an increasingly complex international environment.
Indispensable for Japan’s security
Interview with Kensaku Kumabe, representative of Russia, Eurasia Institute of Political Economy & Business
Q: An agreement was reached on starting discussions on joint economic activities on the four Northern Islands.
Kumabe: On this point the statement issued by the two leaders is ambiguous. I look forward to the concrete terms that will emerge in the discussions.
Q: What do you think of the substance of the economic cooperation agreement?
Kumabe: The expansion of Japan-Russia business at the private sector level from energy and autos to various areas is a positive development.
Q: Japan’s economic cooperation is expected to total some 300 billion yen.
Kumabe: Most of the documents signed this time are memorandums and it will take time for the projects to actually be executed. The question now is to make sure that they actually materialize.
The Foreign Ministry has so far been at the forefront of managing the Japan-Russia relationship. Economic cooperation will be accelerated this time because the Kantei [Prime Minister’s Official Residence] took the lead. Ministries that have not been involved with Russia so far are also taking part now, so this will broaden the scope of cooperation. This was the result of the Prime Minister’s leadership in diplomacy with Russia.
Q: There is persistent concern in Japan that with economic cooperation alone moving forward, the territorial issue will be left behind.
Kumabe: Each of the projects are worthy of Japan’s exports and investment. Russia is not the only one to benefit. Increased personnel exchanges as a result of economic cooperation will deepen mutual understanding. Russia is also important for Japan’s security. It is necessary to break away from the current approach of focusing only on the territorial issue.
Q: Do you think the summit talks represented a turning point in bilateral relations?
Kumabe: I’m not sure if there was a dramatic change but the foundation has been laid. Great wisdom is required in actualizing the various economic cooperation projects. The government should put in place a mechanism for assessing the economic rationality of each project before making investments.
“Special system” is realistic
Interview with Hosei University Professor Nobuo Shimotomai
Q: The Prime Minister emphasizes that joint economic activities are an important step toward concluding a peace treaty.
Shimotomai: I agree. This means that the approach to a solution of the Northern Territories issue has changed.
Q: A “special system” will be created for the joint economic activities.
Shimotomai: This means creating a special mechanism that will not affect the two countries’ sovereignty. The population on the four islands is 17,000. If representatives are assigned to discuss each area, such as fisheries, tourism, and medical services, it will not take more than three to five years to come up with a mechanism acceptable to both sides. This is a very realistic proposal.
The point here is the two leaders reached an agreement. Politicians who are thought to be hawks have agreed on a dovish method of dispute settlement. This may indeed be successful.
Q: Will the Northern Territories be returned?
Shimotomai: The concept of the disposition of the islands being a zero-sum game is changing. The question is whether Japanese nationals can freely visit without undermining either country’s sovereignty. The only option is coexistence and co-prosperity of the two countries.
Q: The reaction in Japan to the outcome of the summit talks is quite negative.
Shimotomai: People who are used to the Northern Territories issue being a geyser that erupts from time to time may not be all that happy with the results. However, the substance of the agreement was well thought out. The people and media need to get used to not looking at this issue as a geyser.
Q: The summit talks also agreed on concrete projects under the eight-point cooperation plan in such areas as medical services and energy.
Shimotomai: These are all appealing proposals for Russia. However, the situation will change if Japan starts to assert its sovereignty. A meeting point will probably be found in the negotiation process on signing a peace treaty.
Q: What is the significance of the Northern Territories for East Asian security?
Shimotomai: The Soviet Union looked at the Northern Territories issue in the context of deterrence against U.S. forces Japan. After the end of the Cold War, this has come to be linked with Russia’s policy toward China. With a new Arctic navigational route, the Sea of Okhotsk is becoming a passage for Chinese vessels to the Arctic Circle. Russia is developing its military strategy for the Northern Territories and Chishima Islands with that also in mind.
Q: There was also talk of resuming the Japan-Russia two-plus-two that has been suspended since November 2013.
Shimotomai: This proposal came from Russia. So far, Japan has been an economic partner of Russia, but it is also gradually becoming a strategic partner in dealing with China. With Japan’s growing strategic importance, the nature of the Japan-Russia relationship is also changing.
Return of Northern Territories may become more unlikely
Interview with University of Niigata Prefecture Professor Shigeki Hakamada
Q: What do you think of the Japan-Russia summit talks?
Hakamada: That the two leaders talked and decided on a start is not insignificant. The expansion of the visa-free program for the former islanders to visit is also significant in the humanitarian sense. However, I have to say that no progress at all was made toward a solution of the Northern Territories issue.
Q: An agreement was reached on starting discussions on joint economic activities.
Hakamada: Putin also admitted that this is an important step toward concluding a peace treaty. However, the wording leaves room for various interpretations. Putin only recognizes the Japan-Soviet Joint Communique. It is improbable that economic activities can be conducted outside Russian laws. I’m not sure how the two countries can compromise on their legal positions. Applying a third set of laws that are neither Japanese nor Russian is unrealistic.
Q: Will the joint economic activities not be a positive factor for the territorial talks?
Hakamada: It may even make (the return of the Northern Territories) more unlikely under certain circumstances because the application of Russian laws will amount to official recognition of the islands as Russian territory.
Putin used to recognize the Tokyo Declaration which stated that the issue of sovereignty over the four islands is unresolved. He is taking a tougher stance now. Russia basically set the tone in the summit talks. The Japanese government has so far tried to strike a balance between the peace treaty negotiations and economic cooperation, with the notion that the two countries are equal. It seems that this basic policy is disintegrating. This is a serious problem. The Prime Minister is probably aware of this, but his aides seem to take the issue of sovereignty too lightly.
Q: What do you think of the 300 billion yen economic cooperation?
Hakamada: It’s fine if companies will make inroads at their own risk. Tax money will be used if the government takes risks and provides funding. There needs to be a balance with the peace treaty talks.
Q: How about security cooperation?
Hakamada: It is very possible that the U.S. will be concerned about deep security cooperation with Russia (in view of the Ukraine issue), and this may undermine military trust between Japan and the U.S. However, developing stable long-term relations with Russia is not wrong because Japan is facing threats from China and North Korea. It also has a tricky relationship with the ROK.
Q: Russia is concerned about the deployment of U.S. forces in the Northern Territories.
Hakamada: If Habomai and Shikotan are excluded from application of the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty after their return, the U.S. will probably think twice about its obligation to defend the Senkaku Islands. Japan will have nothing to say if told by the U.S. that it can’t be responsible for the Senkakus. (Slightly abridged)