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Abe’s diplomacy for Osaka G20 (3) / N. isles strategy hit by surprise Russian resistance

This is the third installment in this series.


“The momentum has been lost for Japan-Russia peace treaty negotiations.”


On March 19, four days after this comment by Russian President Vladimir Putin was reported in the media, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “I intend to start with what can be done.” He was speaking at the Prime Minister’s Office to former House of Representatives lawmaker Muneo Suzuki, who dealt with Russia for many years.


Believing that negotiations would be protracted, Abe was expressing his intention to first move Japan-Russia relations forward via such means as economic cooperation.

At the Japan-Russia leaders’ meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka this June, Abe wants to swiftly advance peace treaty negotiations — including the issue of the northern territories — to the point of agreement on an overall framework.


After Putin last September abruptly proposed a peace treaty within that year with no preconditions, a scenario for such a rapid conclusion has been considered within the Japanese government.


Amid the elation that there might be progress on the northern territories, an issue that had been bogged down for more than 60 years, Abe played an important card in November. He agreed with Putin to accelerate negotiations based on the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration (see below) of October 1956.


The joint declaration states that after a peace treaty is concluded, two of the four northern territories — the Habomai group of islets and Shikotan — would be transferred to Japan. It does not refer to Etorofu and Kunashiri.


Making the declaration the basis for talks effectively represents a concession from the position of demanding the return of all four territories.


Statements that the northern territories are “inherently Japanese territory” have also disappeared from public forums, out of consideration toward Russia.


Opposition parties were critical: “This has pushed back the efforts [made in negotiations on the northern territories by previous administrations] and set the hands of the clock back,” said Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan leader Yukio Edano.


Even conservative elements that have supported the prime minister object to this concession.


The Abe administration has stressed its position of not budging at all regarding such issues as the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture and the Takeshima islands of Shimane Prefecture. Concern has been expressed, particularly in the Foreign Ministry, that the wrong message may be sent to the international community, that Japan’s position on the northern territories represents a double standard.


Abe was able to embark on a bold gamble, aware of the possibility of criticism, due to the firm political foundation of his “Abe dominance,” partly the result of weakening among the opposition parties.


What was unexpected was the harsh reaction from the Russian side.


When the officials tasked with handling the negotiations — Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov — met in January, Lavrov asserted that sovereignty over the four territories lay with Russia as a result of the outcome of World War II. Sergey Ivanov, special representative on environmental and transport issues and said to be close to Putin, visited Shikotan in February and posited that if the northern territories were returned, U.S. missile defense systems would be deployed there.


A Russian survey was also released that said 96 percent of Russian residents on the islands opposed their return to Japan.


Forced to rethink its policies regarding Russia, the Japanese government intends to return to the “new approach” proposed to Russia in 2016: building trust over time through such means as economic cooperation, and linking that to the resolution of the northern territories issue.


Among the subjects being considered for the leaders’ talks on the sidelines of the G20 meeting are an early start to joint economic activities in the northern territories, as well as economic cooperation in the fields of resource development and establishing infrastructure.


At the moment, there are significant differences of position in the Japan-Russia negotiations.


“[Contrary to our perceptions,] Russia isn’t a country that moves entirely on Putin’s desires,” a Japanese government official explained. “There was more internal resistance than we imagined to issues like sovereignty and security, things related to the foundation of a country.”


Keeping status quo for now?


By Yu Koizumi

Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology, the University of Tokyo


The Abe administration’s compromise, going from the return of four territories to the return of two in negotiations over a Japan-Russia peace treaty, is a break from past policy. It was a gamble based on the belief that there were no other options, but Russia has taken advantage of Japan and it has not gone well.

The Japan side believed that Japan and Russia could come into step with each other on restraining China. This is one reason it was believed that Russia would become more flexible on the northern territories, but given its long border with China, Russia wants to avoid a decisive worsening of relations with that country. Japan can be said to have misjudged Russia’s perception of China as a threat.

Russia strongly distrusts the United States, while for Japan, coordination with the United States is the foundation of its foreign policy and security. Russia calls for “developing trust,” but ultimately this is equivalent to calling for the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty to be shredded.

Regarding the northern territories, the only choice at the moment seems to be strategically accepting the current situation, and working to improve the Japan-Russia relationship.


■Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration

Concluded in October 1956 by Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama and Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin, while Hatoyama was visiting Moscow.

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