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Notwithstanding the Japanese prime minister’s expected absence on Red Square on Victory Day, the end of May 2015 was marked by intensified contacts between Moscow and Tokyo. Both sides gave signals towards resuming the dialogue, inter alia, on the settlement of their territorial dispute. Discussions over Vladimir Putin's visit to Japan, scheduled for the autumn of 2014 but postponed indefinitely due to the Ukrainian crisis and pressure from Washington, have become added testimony to thawed relations.

Notwithstanding the Japanese prime minister’s expected absence on Red Square on Victory Day, the end of May 2015 was marked by intensified contacts between Moscow and Tokyo. Both sides gave signals towards resuming the dialogue, inter alia, on the settlement of their territorial dispute. Discussions over Vladimir Putin's visit to Japan, scheduled for the autumn of 2014 but postponed indefinitely due to the Ukrainian crisis and pressure from Washington, have become added testimony to thawed relations.

According to rumors in the press, the White House once again faced down its Japanese ally, since the latter jumped to the hasty conclusion that the Sochi talks between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov were a go-ahead to resuming relations with Moscow. However, this false start has only shown that the pause taken by Tokyo towards the Kremlin over the Ukrainian crisis is due to political factors shaped by the revived ghost of bloc-motivated behavior, rather than serious bilateral disagreements. And current Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe currently has an opportunity to overcome these and other obstacles on the way to improving Russian-Japanese relations.

Maintaining dialogue between the leaders and continually preparing the ground for making decisions, a term referred to as “nemawashi” in Japanese organizational culture, are essential conditions for the normalization of bilateral relations. In this regard, Shinzo Abe’s return to power in December 2012 returned a long-absent spirit to relations between Moscow and Tokyo, which were quite different from the past due to the proactiveness of the Japanese leader. Despite some symbolic dialogues between the top officials from the two countries, such as those between Hashimoto and Yeltsin, following the collapse of the Soviet Union relations between the Kremlin and Kasumigaseki (the district in Tokyo where most of Japan's cabinet ministry offices are located) has for a long time been reduced to the diplomatic cliché “the parties agreed to continue negotiations."

This ritualized rhetoric covered the Kuril “Gordian knot” without any significant progress. During the decades of the post-Soviet period, a set of legal and historical arguments put forward by both sides have become as predictable as chess openings, and overcoming inflexibility for changing the status quo has required a level of political will, which has not yet been sufficient. It would seem that after the Cold War Russia and Japan did not have any fundamental differences apart from their territorial dispute. Kazuhiko Togo, a Japanese specialist in Russia and retired senior diplomat, notes that there were no less than five such lost windows of opportunity in the past three decades [1]. Remarkably, he lays much of the responsibility on the Japanese side for the latter’s uncompromising stand and demands to change the status quo.

Chances in the noughties

In addition to Vladimir Putin’s course for rapprochement with the West during his first presidency and the precedents of Russian compromise settlements of territorial disputes with Norway and China, there were marginally favorable conditions for reaching a Russian-Japanese agreement. These conditions included, inter alia, Putin’s practicing judo and the opportunities offered by government contacts, since a number of Japanese prime ministers belonged to the faction of pragmatic Yoshiro Mori – a key leader in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party. However, any progress that began to shape every time turned out to be taken hostage either by foreign tectonics in relations between Washington and Moscow, or by internal political problems such as the Suzuki case, which unwittingly resulted in the departure of key experts on Russia from the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

After Junichiro Koizumi, who was the fifth longest serving prime minister in the history of Japan, stepped down from office in 2006, the government reshuffle in Tokyo resumed its customary annual periodicity, hampering any continuity as well as long-term policy planning. Expectations of progress in relations invested in Prime Minister from the Democratic Party of Japan Yukio Hatoyama, whose grandfather signed a joint Soviet-Japanese declaration with Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 which is still used as a guideline for the official position of the Russian Foreign Ministry, failed to justify.

In an outburst of anger, Hatoyama's successor Naoto Kan even recalled Japan’s ambassador from Russia in response to President Dmitry Medvedev’s trip to the Kuril Islands. However, the Fukushima nuclear power plant accident unwittingly brought relations out of the dead end, as Japan set a course for abandoning nuclear power and for replacing it with natural gas in particular, which made Russia a natural partner. The political circles in Tokyo decided to wait for the reshuffle in the Kremlin, believing that the expected successor of Dmitry Medvedev would be easier to negotiate with. Things began moving, when Vladimir Putin before his re-election in March 2012 in a conversation with a Japanese journalist used the Judo terms “hiki-wake,” which in that context meant a mutually beneficial draw, and “hajime” indicating the signal for the start of negotiations. The Japanese media has immediately trumpeted these words, making them the subject of different interpretations by domestic experts on Russian politics. However, in 2013 the government in Tokyo changed again and the LDPJ led by Shinzo Abe returned to power.

Right off the bat

The pause taken by Tokyo towards the Kremlin over the Ukrainian crisis is due to political factors shaped by the revived ghost of bloc-motivated behavior, rather than serious bilateral disagreements.

Despite his reputation in the media as a “hawkish” right-wing conservative and his proximity to the American establishment, Shinzo Abe pretty soon demonstrated an active commitment to dialogue with the Kremlin. Russia was among the first countries he visited: in March 2013 the head of the Japanese Cabinet paid an official visit to Moscow for the first time in many years. Before leaving Tokyo, Shinzo Abe told reporters that he shared common values with President Vladimir Putin, thereby confirming his pragmatic attitude and removal from the common position of the West. Later on, direct contacts between Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe took place five more times within the framework of G8, G20 and APEC, and Tokyo has officially been active in establishing a mechanism of bilateral consultations with Russia in the 2 + 2 format of foreign and defense ministers. It is worth noting that Japan has this format of contacts only with a narrow circle of Western powers, namely Australia, the United States and France, and the establishment of this format with India is in the making. Shinzo Abe was the only leader of the then-G8, who attended the opening of the Olympics in Sochi.

In addition to interest in natural resource cooperation with Russia, Shinzo Abe and his National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi were guided by realpolitik considerations, in particular the desire to counterbalance the rise of China and to promote the settlement of the North Korean nuclear issue. This has laid an unprecedented groundwork for cooperation. Shinzo Abe and the Kremlin have similar views, inter alia, on the normalization of the situation around Iran, on the primacy of the UN in the field of international security, and on maintaining the post-war status quo under the enhanced activity of Japan in UN peacekeeping operations.

In the aftermath of Crimea

REUTERS/Toru Hanai
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The Ukrainian crisis forced adjustments to the Russian-Japanese detente. But again the Japanese leadership headed by S. Abe tried to display the utmost pragmatism and for months sneaked out of imposing sanctions against Russia similar to those of other Western countries and confined itself to de jure condemnation. When finally the delay over the imposition of sanctions became no longer possible due to strong pressure from Washington, the sanctions imposed by Japan were, in fact, somewhat cosmetic and affected only already stalled bilateral projects.

Tokyo used the Ukrainian policy of the Kremlin primarily as an occasion to draw the attention of the West to China-Japan tensions in order to be the safe side should Beijing decide to unilaterally revise boundaries in the disputed territories. The list of officials against whom Japan launched sanctions has not been published, although it is rumored that it includes among others such nominal figures as Nikita Khrushchev and Josef Stalin.

Russian officials have freely visited Tokyo: Chairman of the State Duma Sergei Naryshkin, who is well-acquainted with Shinzo Abe and some of his associates since Abe’s first premiership, traditionally opened a Russian Culture Festival in June 2014. The most damaging Japanese sanctions against Russia included the banning of several Russian state banks from issuing securities in Japan, restrictions on Japanese defense exports to Russia and the indefinite postponement of the return visit of Vladimir Putin to the Land of the Rising Sun.

The 70th anniversary of Victory Day in Moscow was not on Abe’s list of priority protocol events, so his absence at the celebration should not be regarded as a demarche. This is substantiated by the difference in the dates and circumstances of the end of World War II in Europe and Asia, and the negative attitude of certain Japanese, maintained due to inertia, to the violation of the Neutrality Pact by the Soviet Union in 1945. Nevertheless, this did not prevent Junichiro Koizumi, Shinzo Abe’s predecessor and his former boss, from accepting a similar invitation from Vladimir Putin a decade earlier.

The Fukushima nuclear power plant accident unwittingly brought relations out of the dead end, as Japan set a course for abandoning nuclear power and for replacing it with natural gas in particular, which made Russia a natural partner.

However, in the middle of the noughties, Russia was popular among Japanese companies not only as a source of raw materials, but also as an investment and sales market: due to petrodollars, the country’s purchasing power grew like a weed. Now the trend is instead the reverse, as measured by a reduction of Japanese companies’ business operations in Russia. Hydrocarbons, though a suitable fuel for Abenomics, do not compose a unique competitive advantage for Russia because there are existing alternatives, ranging from Australia which is trying to reduce its dependence on the slowing Chinese economy, to Iran whose deposits are still grabbing attention from both Beijing and Tokyo.

An unconventional Prime Minister

Why is S. Abe the most capable of becoming Moscow’s genuine partner, with whom it can reach an agreement? First, there is ample time. Having successfully endured several elections and even the dissolution of parliament, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has a majority in both houses. Therefore, the prime minister can expect to stay in power for the next three years, which is a long period by Japanese standards, while the horizon “beyond 2018” is just as vague for Japan as it is for Russia. Most of Abe’s predecessors had no time even to make all scheduled visits to other countries during an average calendar year, let alone delve into long-term planning.

Second, since his first premiership, Shinzo Abe has been known for decisively railroading his bills into laws, no matter how potentially unpopular they may be. With regards to foreign policy and defense strategy, both Shinzo Abe and his National Security Adviser Shotaro Yachi prefer proactive leadership actions in the spirit of strong executive power.

Such courage is rare in Japanese political circles, which often depend much on volatile ratings as well as on bureaucratic and factional barriers. Giulio Pugliese, who specializes in the politics of the Asia-Pacific with a focus on Japan, notes several US sources that Shinzo Abe is second to no other democratically elected leader in the world in terms of making so many changes to the security policy of the country in just a year and a half. In addition to a mandate in several election battles and the continued popularity of the charismatic prime minister, the newly adopted law on state secrets, which reduces public accountability of government actions in matters of national security, has helped him much towards this end.

Shinzo Abe’s independence and his willingness to take a punch stand out in the crowd of most of his predecessors and possible successors. Given that any compromise solution over the territorial issue will inevitably be used in domestic politics, it is unlikely that the successor to the current prime minister will bring himself to run the gauntlet of bureaucrats and parliamentary opposition for the sake of concluding a deal with Moscow. In addition, S. Abe’s readiness to increase Japan's contribution to the defense alliance with the United States, and his course for joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership promoted by Washington, give the Prime Minister a bargaining chip should the White House oppose the settlement of the Kuril issue.

Shinzo Abe and the Kremlin have similar views, inter alia, on the normalization of the situation around Iran, on the primacy of the UN in the field of international security, and on maintaining the post-war status quo under the enhanced activity of Japan in UN peacekeeping operations.

Contrary to the popular although controversial belief that the foreign policy of the Land of the Rising Sun lacks independence, it would be a mistake to label the current system of decision-making in Tokyo as a kind of karaoke-diplomacy, in which the Americans call the tune, while the Japanese just perform the lyrics. This is especially true since S. Abe manages to consistently revise the Constitution in order to make the Japanese defense policy more independent. The matter at hand is rather Tokyo’s maneuvering between Washington and Beijing, as the Japanese elite historically has always found ways to establish a partnership with the dominant power of the time, be it China, the Netherlands, Britain, Germany or the United States. We should not rule out the possibility of the extrapolation of this logic in the long term to Japanese-Chinese relations, their current confrontation notwithstanding. Fortunately, contrary to his image as a right-wing conservative revisionist, S. Abe has never neglected relations with the Heavenly Empire, as evidenced by the circumstances of the visits he paid to Beijing during his both premierships.

In between the winds from the East and from the West

Tokyo used the Ukrainian policy of the Kremlin primarily as an occasion to draw the attention of the West to China-Japan tensions in order to be the safe side should Beijing decide to unilaterally revise boundaries in the disputed territories.

The fact that Japanese leaders perceived recent US-Russian talks in Sochi as a go-ahead sets out speculation about a so-called “Nixon shock,” the memory of which is still fresh in Tokyo. The Japanese desire do not want to be ignored by the US in its rapprochement with China, or, in line with the same logic, with some other third country with which Washington has strained relations. As is well known, since the time of Mao, the Japanese have done their best to salvage contacts with the huge Chinese mainland market, but the senior partner in the defense alliance has demanded Japan’s support for Taiwan.

In the early 1970s, the Japanese prime minister learned from the media about the change of the ally’s position and that the White House under Nixon had decided to restore relations with communist Beijing. Japan faced American neglect of its interests when the country at issue was China, and a similar situation can be seen with respect to Russia or Iran. In relations with these countries, Japan has sometimes had to abandon pragmatism and adjust its foreign policy to Washington’s course. Incidentally, according to historian Andrei Kravtsevich’s research, the reluctance of the White House to promote the improvement of relations between Beijing and Tokyo in the mid-1950s stalled the normalization of the Soviet-Japanese relations [2].

Nevertheless, it would be too simplistic and inadequate to perceive the relationship between Moscow and Tokyo through the prism of bloc thinking, since such a perspective is not accurate and derives mainly from inertia left over from the Cold War era. Tokyo is interested in preventing a possible alliance between Washington and Beijing within the framework of the “big two” that Zbigniew Brzezinski once suggested, and, on the contrary, a clash of the titans, which would put Japan between the hammer and the anvil.

In this respect, Japan’s rapprochement with Russia should not be regarded as a “zero sum game” for China or the United States, except that they seem to be the only beneficiaries of the continuation of the Kuril territorial dispute. The Japanese elites realize that the Kremlin will not participate in China’s containment. And the ranks of Tokyo advocates of rapprochement with Moscow to spite Beijing are beginning to thin out. Russia is interested in establishing a multipolar order not only around the world, but at the regional level in Asia too, as many of Russia's partners there are apprehensive, just like Japan, of growing Chinese power and the North Korean nuclear program. The Russian-Japanese relationship remains an important unknown variable in this pan-Asian equation, whereas the resolution of the territorial dispute could reduce the overall conflict potential in the Asia-Pacific, which is foreshadowed to become the hotbed of future confrontations.

Historian Vasily Molodyakov noted in a recent article that 2015 is rich in Russian-Japanese anniversaries. The most momentous of these are the 160th anniversary of the Treaty of Shimoda (1855), the first fundamental treaty between the two countries; the 110th anniversary of the Treaty of Portsmouth that put an end to the Russian-Japanese war; and, of course, the end of World War II, the results of which triggered the Southern Kuril Islands Dispute. 2016 is the year of the 60th anniversary of the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which laid the foundations of reconciliation between the two countries, and this anniversary could be celebrated if not though a breakthrough, but at the very least with some progress. A small window of opportunity is still open.

1. Togo Kazuhiko, “Hoppo ryodo kosho kiroku: Ushinawareta gotabi no kikai” [The Inside Story of the Negotiations on the Northern Territories: Five Lost Windows of Opportunity] (Tokyo: Shincho bunko, 2011) [in Japanese]

2. "Japan: Between a China Question and a China Obsession" in Michelguglielmo Torri and Nicola Mocci eds. Asia Maior, Vol. 25, 2014, Bologna: Emil di Odoya, 2015. ISSN 2385-2526

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