Diplomacy is one of the domains where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe says he has delivered results during the five years and nine months he has been in power.
But that official position couldn’t be further removed from reality when it comes to Japan’s relations with Russia.
Abe is exaggerating in describing that bilateral negotiations for a peace treaty are moving ahead. Explanations that are out of touch with reality could not only mislead public understanding but could also invite suspicion among the international community.
Abe held his 22nd summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week. However, the latest summit failed to set any clear path for realizing joint economic activity on the four disputed islands off Hokkaido, which were seized by the Soviet Union during the closing days of World War II and are claimed by Tokyo.
“Our new approach is steadily changing the way Japan and Russia work together,” Abe said.
In fact, however, the negotiations have remained stalled since both leaders reached an agreement two years ago.
And the reason is clear: both countries are seeing the joint activity being proposed in a completely different light.
Moscow says the joint activity should be subject to Russian law. It also argues the framework for cross-border passage of people should not be limited to the four islands but should also cover the entirety of Sakhalin Oblast and Hokkaido.
Tokyo is seeking a special system to be applied to the four islands alone, but the positions of both parties remain far apart. After all, just because the joint economic activity will come to pass would not necessarily mean a breakthrough will be made in the territorial issue.
Russia has deployed ground-to-ship missiles on Etorofu and Kunashiri islands, part of the disputed Northern Territories. It was learned last month that Russia had flown fighter jets of a new and powerful model to Etorofu island.
Moscow is steadily building up its military force on the four islands, which it sees as strategic footholds.
A military exercise, the largest in scale since the Cold War ended, began Sept. 11 in the Russian Far East. While Russia has been conducting similar war games every four years, the armed forces of China are taking part for the first time in the ongoing session.
The maneuvers are obviously intended to show off Moscow’s strategic ties with Beijing and to keep Washington in check.
Russia’s ties with the United States and Europe remain strained.
The country came under fire when it one-sidedly annexed Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014. Russia is also at loggerheads with the West, including over its suspected intervention in the latest U.S. presidential election and over suspicion of attempted murder, by poisoning, of a former spy in Britain.
Given those circumstances, Japan has been holding summit talks with Russia, and paying tribute to Putin, even as Tokyo has been imposing sanctions on Moscow in step with other members of the Group of Seven. The international community should be forgiven for looking with suspicious eyes at Japan, which is failing to get in Russia’s face and take a firm stance in asserting the rule of law and other principles.
It goes without saying that demarcating the border and signing a peace treaty with Russia is a major task left to be done by postwar Japan. But its fundamental objective should lie in ensuring peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region, including the United States, China and the Korean Peninsula, over the long term.
No prospects would be opened in the talks with Russia as long as Japan were only to rely on intimate personal ties between the leaders and economic cooperation alone in calling for Moscow’s concessions on the territorial issue, oblivious of the need to see Japan-Russia ties in a broader picture of international relations.
–The Asahi Shimbun, Sept. 12