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A call for practical Japan-Russia relations: Carnegie Moscow Center senior fellow

Below is an interview with Alexander Gabuev, Senior Fellow and Chair of the Russia in the Asia-Pacific Program at Carnegie Moscow Center. Interviewed by Yohei Ishikawa.


Under the Abe administration, great advances were made in Russia-Japan relations on the political and economic fronts. Substantial results were achieved amid difficult international circumstances, including the conflict between the U.S. and China and Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. There were, however, differences between expectations and reality. In particular, the results did not live up to Japan’s expectations.


Japan believed that the building of personal ties between the leaders of Japan and Russia would lead to a resolution of the territorial dispute, and Japan would be able to sign a peace treaty with Russia. This thinking was overly optimistic and unrealistic. Russia did not take the opportunity to normalize relations offered by Japan. A resolution of the territorial dispute is slipping further away.


The Putin administration does not expect Japan’s investment in Russia to increase even if Habomai and Shikotan islands are transferred to Japan as stated in the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration. The Russian people have never approved of ceding even one island to Japan. The administration does not think it is worth the effort to change public opinion on this issue.


The July 2020 revision of the Russian Constitution, which prohibits cession of territory, makes the resolution of the Northern Territories issue more difficult. But with the political will, it is not an insurmountable obstacle. It seems, however, that both Japan and Russia realize that the issue will not be resolved for the next few decades. The countries may repeat their claims during the negotiations, but they should take care that the talks will not be “all about the Northern Territories.”


Under the next prime minister, both Japan and Russia should lower their expectations and withdraw their demands that are ambitious and unrealistic. If the new prime minister does not have a personal interest in Japan-Russia relations as Abe did, it could actually open up a path toward a level-headed and practical relationship.


Russia needs to recognize that the priority for Japan, which is dealing with China’s rise, is to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance. Efforts to destabilize the Japan-U.S. military alliance would have the opposite effect. Japan must realize that China and Russia will grow closer. Japan and Russia are heading toward different camps.


Amid this severe international environment, it will be important to maintain the framework for dialogue that the Abe administration created. There are dialogues for economic cooperation as well as foreign and defense ministerial consultations (“2+2”) and regular dialogues on security issues.


Neither Japan nor Russia is hoping for the conflict between the U.S. and China to escalate. It would be in the interest of both Japan and Russia if they were to call on the U.S. and China to keep their disputes within certain boundaries and follow the rules.


It would be beneficial for Japan and Russia to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula by holding dialogue on creating a code of conduct for East Asian countries. A missile deployment race in East Asia would aggravate Japan-Russia relations. Pressing issues related to regional security should be discussed calmly and separately from the Northern Territories issue.


Japan and Russia should jointly implement economic projects that benefit both countries. Good examples of such projects are the construction of the next-generation 5G telecommunication network in Russia and liquid natural gas (LNG) development in the Arctic Circle.

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