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Commentary: The drama of the ‘Kurillian knot’

By Hidetoshi Azuma


The diplomatic drama unfolding between Japan and Russia once again appears poised to reach another historic low in tragedy. It was reported in mid-April that Tokyo has decided not to pursue a broad agreement on a World War II peace treaty when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka in June. The latest impasse attests to the enduring quandary surrounding the territorial question over the four islands off Hokkaido — called the southern Kuril Islands by Russia — that were seized by Soviet forces in 1945.


While Abe has been courting Putin’s favor indefatigably since 2013 in the hope of a diplomatic breakthrough, the upshot of the last 25 summits and countless ministerial meetings reveals the prime minister’s misguided strategy shaped by ever-shifting goals pursued with questionable means. Moreover, Moscow’s growing international clout increasingly forces Tokyo into a disadvantageous negotiating position, posing a fundamental question for Abe to ponder: to cut or not to cut the “Kurillian knot.”


In fact, Tokyo’s bid for both a peace treaty and resolving the territorial row is virtually an infeasible proposition, due largely to postwar Japan’s suppressed military power. Abe has therefore attempted to compensate for Tokyo’s hard power deficit with its perceived soft power by crafting a “new approach” to Russia revolving around his knack for personal diplomacy and Japan’s economic largesse. In fact, there is nothing fundamentally new in his signature engagement strategy for Russia due to its continued legal focus on the territorial dispute. As a result, once in contact with Putin, the prime minister’s newfound summit diplomacy has consistently exposed itself as bordering on a self-fulfilling prophecy while stifling sober strategic thinking needed for advancing the bilateral negotiations.


Indeed, the very territorial issue is now essentially at the mercy of the broader geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the West. Putin is a de facto wartime president waging hybrid war with the West involving virtually every facet of society from finance to social media in addition to physical battle space. He is a leading force upsetting the global norms long shaped by the United States-led liberal international order from Crimea to cyberspace. While Japan may not be Russia’s enemy No. 1, let alone a military threat, the country is above all a loyal U.S. ally whose military modernization, particularly the U.S.-Japan missile defense program, remains a major thorn in the flesh for the Kremlin’s commander in chief. From his perspective, Japan cannot have independent decision-making power for its own national security as long as the Japan-U.S. security treaty allows Washington to dictate its military presence anywhere under Japanese sovereignty — despite Abe’s repeated reassurances to the contrary vis-a-vis the disputed islands.


Virtually lacking any leverage over Moscow, Tokyo increasingly finds itself in dire need of unconventional thinking about its supposedly “new approach” to Russia. Japan remains doubly constrained both internally and externally by its own pacifist Constitution and the U.S.-Russia great power rivalry.


This leaves Tokyo with having to seek domestic political maneuvers to advance the stalled bilateral peace talks. In fact, Abe appears to recognize his own quandary and has been attempting to change the domestic consensus on the territorial question. This led him last November to officially adopt a “two islands plus-alpha” formula for future negotiations, a departure from Tokyo’s traditional position of calling for the reversion of all four of the disputed islands at once. Abe has also been reshuffling his team of advisers by increasingly sidelining National Security Adviser Shotaro Yachi and the Foreign Ministry while consulting former Lower House member Muneo Suzuki and the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry in particular.


Although Abe’s new framework for the bilateral negotiations is a testament to Tokyo’s emerging paradigm shift in its Russia policy, it is tactical at best and is no guarantee of a diplomatic breakthrough.


Indeed, Abe’s shifting position on the territorial question has inadvertently allowed Putin to recently question the U.S.-Japan alliance due to its relevance to the possible return of Japanese sovereignty over parts of the disputed islands. Putin’s latest diplomatic curve ball augers ill for Tokyo’s prospect for resolving the territorial dispute. In other words, as long as Russia retains military control of the four islands, whatever policy changes at the tactical level adopted by Tokyo offers no guarantee of resolution and only produces additional openings for Moscow to exploit.


Therefore, Abe’s “new approach” to Russia needs a paradigm shift at the grand strategic level with an eye to Japan’s future place in Eurasia’s evolving geoeconomic dynamics. The arrested Russia-Japan relations remain a major impediment to Tokyo’s thrust to the Eurasian continent, leading it to fall behind the emerging regional integration competition led by Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union and Beijing’s “Belt and Road” initiative.


In fact, Tokyo has a comparable geoeconomic agenda called the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure, but it is struggling to emerge as a solid competitor challenging the other two geoeconomic initiatives given the country’s marginal regional presence. Tokyo would be best served to cooperate with Moscow to stay relevant in Eurasia’s burgeoning integration projects while checking Beijing’s expanding neo-Sinocentrism from Vladivostok to Lisbon.


While a peace treaty may await a breakthrough on the territorial row indefinitely, opportunities do not. Unprecedented transformations across Eurasia are now unfolding before Japan thanks to various integration projects led chiefly by Russia and China. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is also accelerating regional connectivity via cyber-physical integration, linking some of the world’s desolate locations to the global economy. Tokyo therefore finds itself with a historic decision with regard to its frozen relations with Moscow.


Unleashing Japan’s geoeconomic potential across Eurasia and beyond would involve cutting the Kurillian knot even if it means the shelving of the territorial question for an immediate peace treaty. In other words, both countries would benefit from agreeing to disagree over the islands for now and shift their focus to the bolstering of their strategic cooperation to provide an alternative to China’s regional integration agenda.


To be sure, not cutting the Kurillian knot remains a solid option on the table for Tokyo, but choosing it would risk Japan’s relevance in the region. Meanwhile, searching for the golden mean between the two extreme choices would prove futile due to fundamental disagreements on the American factor Shelving the dispute would save Japan’s face without compromising its territorial claims or its budding relationship with Russia.


Abe may well recall Putin’s proposal for a peace deal without preconditions, unveiled at the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok. He even suggested a conditional peace treaty, leaving room for deferring the territorial question to the future. But the strongman’s offer of an olive branch was a carefully crafted Russian riddle testing Abe’s statesmanship.


The art of strategy is not just about adjusting ends and means; it also involves shaping an effective narrative for human drama constantly vacillating between comedy and tragedy. A strategist aims for comedy but risks tragedy. The conundrum of the Kurillian knot would be the ultimate litmus test of Abe’s diplomatic ingenuity. The silver lining in the latest tragedy of the Far Eastern drama is that the prime minister is at least still eager to reverse his fortunes.


Hidetoshi Azuma is an adjunct fellow at the American Security Project in Washington.

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