Russo-Japanese Relations: 'Abe's step forward?'

Nobuo Shimotomai (Professor, Kanagawa University)
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*Series: Trajectory of Heisei, way forward to Reiwa (No.4)

 Commencement of Russo-Japanese relations in Heisei Era (1989-2019) almost coincided with the end of the Cold War and emergence of Russian Federation as the succession state of the USSR. If one looks back at bilateral relations in this period, one would be surprised by Russia's drastic domestic changes, but bilateral relations remained rather calm. Japan, in its turn, followed challenges of the emergence of Russian Federation and post-Cold War agendas. This does not mean that Japanese perception was slow or stagnant, but the tempo of Moscow's domestic transformation was too fast and went beyond the expectation of most Japanese, including experts who were preoccupied with the territorial questions or the Peace Treaty.
 This can be illustrated by the mutual visits of top leaders. In the cold war period, visits of top leaders to other countries were rather exceptional. Official summits among the top leaders took place only twice in Showa period, 1956, 1973. In October 1956, the Joint Declarations between the two countries were concluded by the Chairperson of the Soviet Ministers Nikolai Bulganin and Japanese Premier Ichiro Hatoyama. Seventeen years later in October 1973, Premier Kakuei Tanaka made an official visit to Moscow to see USSR General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev in the period of détente.
In its turn, the Soviet top leader visited Tokyo only once in the USSR period, April 1991, though it was already Heisei in Japan. Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev came to Japan, six months prior to the demise of the Union. Still this was intended the end of Soviet stagnant policy and new principle of "Extended equilibrium" of widening the mutual relations, including the visa free visits among the islanders of the disputed Northern territories. Still, economic ties between the two countries, especially interest among the Japanese business was already were too low, because of political collapse of the Soviet Union.
Emergence of Russian Federation as the succession state meant, or should have meant, a sharp departure from the previous USSR on ideology, economics, geopolitics and other parameters. Normal interactions between the two countries began to develop, though the confusion of transition to the market economy of Russia sometimes prevented an extended relationship.
Bilateral relations in the Russian Federations can be divided into two periods: the Yeltsin period (1992-1999) and the Putin period. It may be true President Boris Yeltsin wanted a new approach to Japan distinct from Gorbachev. After the failure of August Coup of 1991, Yeltsin and his colleagues, Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev and his deputy Georgii Kunadze, a Japan expert, activated policy towards Japan under the new principle of "law and Justice", or to return to the 1956 formula, by implication, a return of the 'two islands' was hinted at. But President Yeltsin's visit was suddenly cancelled in July 1992.
Japanese politics also changed, as the LDP government of Kiichi Miyazawa fell in August 1993, by the political rise of the oppositionist coalition party. Its leader Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa agreed with Yeltsin the Tokyo Declaration of October 1993 in which it made it clear that the Peace Treaty would solve the belonging of disputed islands of Kunashir, Etorofu, Shikotan and Habomai. Japanese took it as the four islands should belong to the Japanese sovereign, though Russians took otherwise. Thus Russian and Japanese interpretation of this document differed sharply.
Russian position's stance hardened by the mid-1990s, as the NATO enlargement towards the East made complex impact on the new East-West dimension. Russian Foreign Minister was replaced from pro-Atlantic oriented Andrei Kozyrev by a more multi-oriented academician, Gorbachev's politburo member Ye. Primakov who considered China and India as the priority.
 This discrepancy developed in 1997-98 when Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto met with President Yeltsin in Krasnoyarsk (November 1997), and then Kawana (April 1998). The Japanese side proposed drawing a line of demarcation between Etorofu and Urup, based upon the assumption that four islands were under the latent sovereignty. However, this proposal was eventually negated by Russians. Hashimoto resigned in July 1998. His successor Keizo Obuchi made his official visit to Moscow after a 25-year interval in October 1998, but Yeltsin's economic liberalization policies had failed by then, and the Moscow Declaration only signified a vague agreement of the setting up of two commissions; economic joint activity and demarcation of the borderline. Among others, Yeltsin's waning health condition made it difficult to continue to strengthen relations with Japan. He resigned in December 1999.
 In May 2000, a new leader, Vladimir Putin, ex-KGB officer of GDR and jyudoist, was appointed as President and began a new course including a pivot to Asia. He visited Pyoungyang in July 2001, prior to his first visit to the G8 in Okinawa. In his first visit to Tokyo, Putin declared in September 2000 that the 1956 Declaration was valid, by implication suggesting that the two smaller islands should be handed over to Japan as the Peace Treaty was concluded. This was in line with Putin's policy of anti-terrorism as priority, especially after 9-11. Thus began the Putin period, but Russo-Japanese relations were far from stable.
 Japanese domestic upheavals sometimes hampered bilateral relations. Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori tried to accommodate with Russians by the solution of 'Two plus alpha' formula hinted in the Irkutsk of March 2000, but his realism was not necessarily followed by his successor PM Shinichiro Koizumi and his foreign minister Makiko Tanaka, as domestic scandal followed involving the MP Muneo Suzuki who had been active in Hashimoto and Mori cabinet for solving territorial issue. Koizumi's new six point policy, focusing on economic cooperation, especially on energy and other sectors was originally welcomed by Russians, but Koizumi's inclination towards the US including the Iraqi War alienated Moscow from Tokyo. Putin also wanted his first pivot to Asia including the pipeline and involvement to the Asian economic integration process; this included the APEC summit that was originally planned at Vladivostok in 2012. Also, Russian economic revival driven by the high energy prices until 2008 was welcomed by Japanese business circles, but once again, the short cycle of Japanese political changes deepened otherwise reciprocal bilateral relations.
 By that time, east-west relations deteriorated as Putin warned in Munich 2007. The Georgia crisis of August and Lehman shock of 2008 made the situation worse. After the departure of the Koizumi government, Shinzo Abe was elected as the PM; He was the grandson of PM Nobusuke Kishi, who had been LDP secretary in 1955-56 when PM Ichiro Hatoyama made the Joint Declaration of 1956 with Soviet PM N. Bulganin, but his health questions and other domestic scandals prevented from further involvement with Moscow. His successor LDP government Yasuo Fukuda was more inclined towards Asia. His tenure was only one year and he was replaced by Taro Aso, grandson of Shigeru Yoshida, and had willingness to engage Russia, but his government was too short for any tangible achievements.
 Following the failure of the LDP in the election of August 2009, the coalition government led by Yukio Hatoyama and the DPJ came into office. His grandfather was Ichiro Hatoyama, who made the 1956 Joint Declaration. But his tenure was too brief to achieve any progress towards Russia. His successor PM Naoto Kan had to cope with deteriorating relations as was illustrated by President Dmitri Medvedev's visit of Kunashir in September 2010. The earthquake and following nuclear disaster in Fukushima on March 2011 made impact on Russo-Japanese relations, and Putin made a declaration that Russia was prepared to deliver the LNG resources.
PM Yoshihiko Noda of the DPJ inaugurated his cabinet in September 2011 and appointed Koichiro Genba as foreign minister. Before Putin's return to the presidency in May 2012, he even suggested solving the issue of disputed islands by 'hikiwake' when he was asked by a Japanese journalist. Foreign Minister Genba met with President Putin to reassure the strategic relationship of bilateral relations. Prime Minister Noda visited the Vladivostok APEC in September 2012 that signified Putin's pivot to Russia.
With the December 2012 election, the LDP government led by Shinzo Abe came back and Putin-Abe relations resumed. Putin made open his priority in May 2012 on his presidential agendas. He also made his commitment on 'Pivot to Asia' by promoting Yamal-Nenets LNG project in the arctic region. In its turn, Abe activated his policy towards Russia, when he officially visited in May 2013 to widen economic cooperation, and then the winter Olympic in Sochi February 2014. However, the Ukraine crisis took place at that time; Russia was subsequently ousted from the G8 and severe sanctions began to be imposed to Russia. Japan was in an awkward position between the US and EU countries that were tough on sanctions, while Japan pursued the chance to resolve the territorial issues. As the Ukraine crisis intensified, the Japanese position towards Russia became unique among the G7 centuries. Japan was the last runner among the G7 countries to impose sanctions against Russia, being partly motivated with the rise of China.
 Prime Minister Abe took a chance, by visiting Sochi in June 2016, and proposed his eight-point economic cooperation. Putin came to Nagato, Abe's hometown, and Tokyo in December 2016 by the invitation of PM. They promised to carry out the joint economic program at the disputed islands. Still, Ukraine remained the hotspot of intensifying tensions, though Republican Donald Trump won the November 2016 presidential elections. The resulting political gap between Moscow and Washington made it difficult to break the ice of bilateral relations, though Abe made a historical compromise of the 1956 formula at the negotiations of the Peace Treaty in November 2018.
 This turn of PM Abe should have paved the way to break through the impasse and several Russia experts like political commentator Dmitri Trenin welcomed that Japan downgraded her claim to come to terms with Putin's original idea of 1956 formula, but on the whole Russians were not prepared to embrace Abe's new approach, partly because the East-West tensions went worse, while Russian-Chinese came near to be quasi alliance. Thus the Heisei negotiation of the bilateral relations by 2019 produced real progress, but tangible results are not salient. Worsening US-Russia makes a peace treaty difficult, partly because the Peace treaty for Japan is the last chapter of the end of the WW2 with the allies, the US and USSR among others.
 The still-changing Asian landscape and Russian political agenda, especially in Reiwa gives Russian-Japanese relations a unique position. First, Abe-Putin relationship has made remarkable record of 27 summit meetings, including tete-a tete personal meetings each time. In 2020 two important summits are still expected on 9th May in Moscow and in the beginning of September in Vladivostok, symbolizing institutionalization of bilateral relations. Second, president Putin declared the amendment of constitutional change, thus paving the way to prolongation of his power. Some member on the commission on the Russian constitution asked the ban of secession of Russian territory, but Kremlin finally defined Japanese- Russian negotiation is exception, by saying that demarcation line of the national border is not yet finished. Foreign Minister Lavrov also told last August that the implementation of the 1956 Joint declaration is obligatory for Russia. Third, coronavirus crisis that began to spread from 2020 is menacing the mankind and its impact on global politics is enormous. Thus, both Russia and Japan are facing new agendas following the change of international parameters. Russian are now facing historically low-prices of oil and energy that may also fundamentally change Russian international strategy for obvious reason. In its turn Japan needs nearby energy resources, because the Middle East crisis is likely to follow and must diversify the energy supply.