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The Year of Japan-Russia and Abe’s Best-Laid Plans

SNA (Tokyo) — 2018 is set to be an important year for Japan-Russia relations. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has defined 2018 as the “the year of putting our plans into execution,” and as part of this objective he intends to make concrete progress in relations with Russia. Speaking at the opening of the Diet on January 22, Abe stated, “In our relations with other countries, relations with Russia have the greatest number of opportunities… We will successively, one by one, begin to implement the agreements we have reached with Russia and, on this basis, the territorial problem will be resolved and a Japan-Russia peace treaty will be signed.”

This is the intended culmination of a policy Abe has been pursuing since returning to power in December 2012. It began with an official visit to Moscow in April 2013, the first such trip by a Japanese prime minister in over ten years. Abe also travelled to the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics in February 2014, despite the fact that the event was boycotted by most Western leaders and that it was “Northern Territories Day” in Japan—the date on which the country officially campaigns for the return of these Russian-held islands.

Following the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the attempted rapprochement had to be suspended and Japan felt obliged to follow the United States in applying sanctions on Russia. However, having waited for what was seen as a respectful period of time, Abe reactivated his Russia policy in 2016, meeting President Putin in Sochi in May and announcing a “new approach” to relations. The main feature of this was an eight-point plan to promote bilateral economic cooperation.

At the end of that year, Abe also fulfilled his goal of hosting Putin in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi. Compared to the preceding hype, the “onsen summit” was regarded a disappointment, yet it did result in an agreement to discuss joint economic activities on the disputed islands. This issue has been identified by the Japanese side as the main focus for their ongoing diplomatic efforts.

At a subsequent summit in Vladivostok in September 2017, Abe and Putin approved five priority areas for these joint economic activities. These are aquaculture, greenhouse agriculture, tourism, wind power, and waste management. None of these projects would be economically substantial, but their significance lies in the fact that they would enable the reestablishment of a Japanese presence on the islands for the first time in seven decades. Japanese negotiators are also insisting that the projects be conducted under a special legal framework that does not contradict Japan’s claim to sovereignty. In other words, they would not be subject to ordinary Russian legal jurisdiction. If this can be achieved, it would represent a partial concession from Russia on the issue of sovereignty. This, the Abe team hopes, would provide a bridgehead enabling the subsequent expansion of Japanese influence onto the islands.

Having established a platform for developing economic ties, as well as a “personal relationship of trust” with Putin as a result of twenty meetings, Abe now needs to deliver. In this regard, 2018 is considered propitious as it has been selected as the “Year of Japan and Russia.” This is primarily a cultural initiative featuring dozens of events in both countries. One of the highlights will be a major exhibition of Edo-era artwork at Moscow’s Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts. The year has, however, also spurred bilateral engagement in other areas. Most notably, during the visit of Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov to Japan in December 2017, it was announced that the countries’ defense ministries would hold 27 joint events to coincide with this celebratory year.

The Abe administration is clearly taking the Year of Japan and Russia seriously. This is evident from the appointment of Keiji Ide, a senior Japanese diplomat, as ambassador to oversee the year’s events. In addition, Prime Minister Abe is planning to attend the year’s formal opening on May 26 at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow. This will follow his participation in the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF) the previous day, where Japan has been named as an official guest country for 2018.

It is during the meetings with Putin that this visit will afford that Abe hopes to secure agreement on a definite roadmap for the completion of the joint economic activities. With the Russian leader having secured reelection to what is expected to be a final presidential term, Abe hopes that Putin will be willing to take a flexible position on the difficult issue of legal jurisdiction on the disputed islands. To lay the groundwork for this pivotal summit in May, Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Mori met Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Igor Morgulov on February 6 in Tokyo. In addition, it is expected that Foreign Minister Taro Kono will meet his Russian counterpart in advance of Abe’s Moscow trip.

The Limits of Optimism

Abe deserves credit for his determination to put an end to the abnormal situation that persists between Japan and Russia, and which continues to prevent the signing of a peace treaty. He has also rejected dogmatism by distancing his administration from the demand that all four islands be returned at once, a position that Japanese governments have stuck to rigidly in the past. And yet, for all this, there remains serious doubt that Abe’s careful plans for 2018 will come to fruition.

Firstly, it is far from certain that the Russian authorities are willing to give ground on the crucial issue of legal jurisdiction. When it was first agreed in December 2016 that the two sides would discuss joint economic activities, Yury Ushakov, Putin’s chief foreign policy aide, was asked whether the projects would be conducted under Russian law. His reply was unequivocal: “Of course, since it is Russian territory.”

There is also the question of public opinion, since Russian polls consistently show opposition to any concessions to Japan on the territorial dispute. Indeed, critics in the Russian media have already condemned the joint projects as Japan’s “Trojan Horse” and have suggested that any special legal privileges for Japan would represent “extraterritoriality” and be inconsistent with the Russian constitution.

One potential way around this impasse was suggested by Konstantin Kosachev, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian Senate. During his visit to Japan in January, Senator Kosachev proposed a full elimination of visa requirements between Japan and Russia, saying, “It would be a substantial factor that would enable us to move forward, including in realizing the idea of joint economic development of the well-known group of islands.” Such an arrangement would theoretically enable Japanese citizens to work on the disputed islands without acknowledging Russian sovereignty. It would also accord with Russia’s desire for visa liberalization with as many developed countries as possible.

On the downside, the Japanese authorities do not appear ready to offer Russian citizens the reciprocal visa-free access to Japan that would be required. What is more, this arrangement would not resolve the issue of which courts would have legal jurisdiction over the projects, nor settle the question of to whom taxes would be paid.

Given Putin’s domestic power and popularity, it is not impossible that he could face down opposition and find a way to overcome these difficulties. The fundamental problem is that he lacks the incentives to do so. Abe has been seeking to induce concessions by offering economic sweeteners, including the eight-point economic cooperation plan. However, at a time of serious geopolitical tensions for Russia, it is security that matters more than economics. In this regard, Tokyo has little to offer.

When Japan yielded to Washington’s pressure and introduced sanctions on Russia in 2014, this confirmed the view in Moscow that Japan is first and foremost a US ally and cannot be trusted to act independently. This outlook was reinforced in 2017 when, despite intensive lobbying by Russian officials, Japan announced its intention to purchase the Aegis Ashore missile defense system from the United States. Although presented in Japan as essential to protect the country from the North Korean missile threat, Russia considers this to be merely a convenient pretext. The real purpose of the system is regarded as being to add to an expanding network of US missile defense deployments that are designed to surround Russia and undermine its nuclear deterrent.

Having explained their position on several occasions, the Russian authorities were extremely disappointed by Japan’s decision to proceed with the purchase of Aegis Ashore. Speaking in December, chief Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova condemned the decision, saying, “Actions like these are in direct contradiction to the priority of building military and political trust between Russia and Japan, and, unfortunately, will impact in a negative way on the whole atmosphere in bilateral relations, including negotiations over the peace treaty problem.” In the same month, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned that Aegis Ashore creates “a new situation, which we logically must take account of in our military planning.” Apparently with this in mind, at the end of January, the Russian government announced that the civilian airport on Iturup (Etorofu in Japanese) would henceforth be shared by the Russian air force, thereby enabling the deployment of combat jets to this disputed island.

Despite Abe’s best-laid plans, it seems that the Year of Japan-Russia in 2018 will fail to deliver a meaningful change in this bilateral relationship.

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