Japan made no progress on its dispute with Russia over the Northern Territories during recent bilateral talks, despite Tokyo’s significant policy change and repeated compromises over the issue.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 29 on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit of leading rich and developing nations in Osaka. Following their previous meeting in Singapore in November 2018, Tokyo had aimed to reach broad agreement on a bilateral peace treaty during the latest meeting. Japan and Russia never signed a formal peace pact after World War II.
However, the two leaders reached agreement only on the promotion of bilateral economic cooperation and other combined efforts requested by Moscow. They delayed an accord on the issue of sovereignty over the Russian-held Northern Territories — a group of islands off Japan’s northernmost prefecture Hokkaido that would have to be at the core of any peace treaty.
In the previous meeting in Singapore, Prime Minister Abe declared that Japan would move ahead with territorial talks based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration. The statement, under which Japan and the Soviet Union re-established diplomatic ties, states that Moscow would transfer the smaller two of the four islands — Habomai and Shikotan — to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. However, it does not mention how to deal with the two other, bigger islands — Etorofu and Kunashiri. Abe apparently thought it would be more realistic to seek the return of the two smaller isles.
During the bilateral talks, Japan set aside its traditional claims that the four islands “are inherently part of Japan’s territory” and that “Russia illegally occupies” them in an apparent bid to win concessions from Moscow over the issue. One cannot help but wonder why talks did not progress in accordance with Abe’s plans despite Japan’s compromises.
Russia demanded that Japan acknowledge that Russia “legally” occupies the Northern Territories and that the islands are under Moscow’s sovereignty as an absolute precondition for signing a bilateral peace treaty.
President Putin appeared to have no choice but to toughen his stance on the territorial issue as his popularity has declined due to an economic slump, and demonstrations against the return of the Northern Territories were held in Russia.
Deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia also made the territorial talks more difficult. Putin repeatedly expressed concerns that the U.S. could deploy troops to the Northern Territories should the islands be returned to Japan.
Russia became increasingly wary of the United States after Washington declared that it would unilaterally withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the president clearly stated before he visited Osaka that Moscow “has no plan” to return the Northern Territories to Japan.
Questions remain as to how far Japan anticipated such risks.
Japan even failed to start talks on the demand for the return of the two smaller islands, and ended up allowing Russia to strengthen its assertion that the Northern Territories legally belong to Russia. Abe’s miscalculation should be thoroughly scrutinized.
There had been speculation in Japan’s political world that the prime minister might dissolve the House of Representatives to hold a general election to coincide with the July House of Councillors election, with an agreement on a bilateral peace treaty at issue during campaigning. Moscow may have taken advantage of the Japanese government’s stress on political motives to toughen the Russian stance on the issue.
The latest meeting was the 26th between Abe and Putin. The prime minister attempted to rely for progress on “mutual trust” he believed the two leaders have nurtured, but it is clear that depending on their personal relationship has its limits.
There remains a wide perception gap between the two countries on historical perceptions and national security. Japan obviously needs to rework its comprehensive strategy for winning the return of the Northern Territories.