(Map of Kuril Islands disputed by Japan and Russia)
A new template is forming in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific – Russo-Japanese concord. The two regional powers with a troubled history are moving in the direction of concluding a peace treaty that could formally end their World War 2 hostilities and open a new page in their relations.
The negotiations are being handled at the highest level of leadership and, therefore, every single meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is invested with high importance. Both statesmen are known to be ardent supporters of a robust partnership between their countries.
The conclusion of a peace treaty is a pre-requisite to put the relationship on a higher trajectory and to realize its full potential. But both nations are also riding a wave of nationalism and when territorial concessions are involved, feelings run high.
Abe also has tryst with destiny insofar as he hopes to garner the historical legacy of getting back from Russia, the territories, which the former Soviet Union had occupied in the final period of World War 2 when Japan was staring at defeat.
Putin understands that an obdurate Russian stance on Kuril islands is impossible for any Japanese leader to accept. On the other hand, he also cannot ignore the Russian public opinion against territorial concessions. Besides, what complicates matters is that Japan is the US’ number one ally in Northeast Asia and Russia is apprehensive that any formula to settle the territorial dispute – which will have to be based on the joint declaration issued by Japan and the Soviet Union in 1956 (which re-established diplomatic relations and stipulated the return of two of the Kuril islands Habomai and Shikotan after the conclusion of a peace treaty) may lead to an American military presence in a region where Russia has several highly sensitive bases.
Last September, Putin had made a novel offer of signing a peace treaty unconditionally by end-2018, but Abe found it unacceptable. Having said that, Abe acknowledged that Putin’s words showed a desire for peace treaty.
(Abe and Putin at Singapore, November 14, 2018)
When they met last week in November 14, Abe reportedly came up with a proposal that Japan would not allow U.S. military bases on two islands off Hokkaido even if Russia returns them based on a 1956 joint declaration. (Ostensibly, Abe hopes to dispel Russian concern over the potential presence of US bases on Habomai and Shikotan islands.)
The Kremlin spokesman refused to comment but in a nuanced response made it a point to “confirm that Tokyo’s alliance obligations (with the US) are important as far as peace treaty talks go.”
It is hard to tell whether the ongoing Putin-Abe diplomacy is also a tango being staged by the two statesmen who have a shared interest in expediting a peace treaty, but who are also having to negotiate with each other and safeguard national interests as well as with carry their respective domestic audiences along at the same time.
It is entirely conceivable that the two statesmen may even have set a timeline. In fact, Putin and Abe are meeting again in Argentina during the G20 in end-November. Tass reported today that Abe will also be visiting Russia in January. The accelerating diplomacy could well have something to do with Putin’s proposed visit to Japan in June to attend the G20 at Osaka. Don’t be surprised if Abe hopes to Putin on a full-fledged state visit in June.
Quite obviously, Russo-Japanese relations are deepening and what seemed an intractable territorial dispute may lend itself to resolution. One possibility could be that Japan regains sovereignty over the Habomai Islands and Shikotan, and the two islands might be turned into special economic zones.
Clearly, the US is the elephant in the room. Under the framework of the Japan-US Security Treaty, American troops in Japan can be stationed on Habomai and Shikotan if the two are handed over to Japan. Therefore, Abe’s proposal (that such a thing will not happen) also implies his willingness to maintain a diplomatic distance from the US.
Indeed, it could not have escaped Putin’s attention that there are incipient trends in Abe’s policies lately suggesting a degree of ‘detachment’ from the US – as apparent, for instance, from Abe’s moves to actively improve relations with China and sequestering it from the deterioration of Sino-American relations. The fact of the matter is that Japan is increasingly uncertain about the US intentions.
Having said that, Japan is still dependent on the security treaty with the US. Trust the US to interfere with the conclusion of a Japan-Russia Peace Treaty, given the long-term implications it would have for the American military presence in Northeast Asia.
On the other hand, a peace treaty would completely transform the Russo-Japanese relations, which would also impact the Russia-Japan-China triangle. To be sure, a full-bodied partnership with Russia will vastly expand the strategic space for Japan to recalibrate its relations with both the US and China.
All signs are that Abe is working on a grand design. For a start, he has to contend with the domestic opinion. Abe’s big re-election as head of the Liberal Democratic Party in September (with 82% support) has put him on track to become Japan’s longest serving prime minister and to pursue his vision of Japan over the next three years in power (in what will be his last term in office), as well as to focus on the kind of legacy he will leave behind. Read a fine piece here by Japanese scholar Tomohiko Satake at the National Institute of Defence Studies, Tokyo – Should Japan continue to support the US-led international order?