Pragmatism warms Russo-Japanese
relations By Kosuke Takahashi
TOKYO - Spooked by China's persistent
assertiveness in confronting its Asian neighbors
at sea, Japan and Russia are beginning to seek
rapprochement to promote cooperation on security
and economics in East Asia.
progress on a decades-old territorial dispute, the
two nations aim to achieve closer military
cooperation to counter China's naval expansion.
They are also accelerating bilateral moves to
strengthen ties based on economic and energy
There is no shortage of
anecdotes and events about this warming of
bilateral relations between Japan and Russia. Most
recently, General Shigeru Isawaki, head of the
Japan Self-Defense Force (JSDF), visited his
Russian counterpart Nikolai Makarov in
Moscow on June 27. The
two nations' top military officials shared the
view that bilateral defense cooperation was good
for stability in the Asia-Pacific region and
agreed to continue cooperation in providing safe
The following day, the
Japanese military delegation led by Iwasaki
visited a motorized infantry brigade and a
military pilot-training center near Moscow. His
trip to Russia is the first in four years for a
chief of the JSDF Joint Staff.
territorial dispute will go nowhere for the time
being," Akihiro Iwashita, a professor of the
Slavic Research Center at Hokkaido University in
Japan, told Asia Times Online. "While shelving the
territorial dispute, the two nations will likely
enhance cooperation pragmatically."
islands Russo-Japanese relations
deteriorated to the lowest point in decades after
Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia's president, visited
Kunashiri Island, one of the four disputed
islands, in November 2010, triggering fierce
protests from Tokyo. He became the first Russian
president to dare to do so. At that time, many
Japanese saw populist Medvedev as taking advantage
of the Sino-Japanese confrontation over the
Senkaku Islands, also referred to as the Diaoyu
Islands in China. He appeared to have preyed on
the weakness of Japan's diplomatic muscle.
The nagging territorial dispute has
prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a
postwar peace treaty. The area at issue, called
the Southern Kurils by the Russians and the
Northern Territories by the Japanese, consist of
three islands - Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan -
and the uninhabited Habomai group of islets. The
Soviet Union seized the islands a few weeks after
Japan's surrender in World War II on August 15,
1945. The islands are believed to be rich in
natural resources, such as oil and gas, and the
area is a major fishing ground.
Based on a
1956 Joint Declaration that restored ties between
two nations, Russia has offered to return the two
smaller territories, Shikotan and the Habomai
group of islets, only after the signing of a peace
treaty with Japan. But Tokyo has rejected this
offer and has sought the return of all four
territories. Moscow has never agreed to the return
of more than Shikotan and Habomai, while Tokyo has
never officially agreed to the return of anything
less than the entire territory.
recent thaw The triple disaster of a
devastating mega-earthquake, tsunami and nuclear
meltdown in March 2011 in Fukushima, Japan, caused
a major turning point for the two nations'
strained relationship. Russia made an emergency
shipment of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to
energy-hungry Japan, easing the tensions.
A more positive move toward thawing the
ice between the two nations came shortly before
the Russian presidential election this March.
During an interview with foreign media on March 1,
then-prime minister Vladimir Putin expressed his
intention to start afresh the negotiations with
Tokyo over the long-running island feud. He
specifically mentioned the 1956 Joint Declaration,
expressing his willingness to resolve the thorny
issue by returning the Shikotan and Habomai.
"If I become president, we will have the
Russian Foreign Ministry sit on one side and the
Japanese Foreign Ministry sit on the other and we
will give out the order, 'Hajime'," said
Putin, a fifth-degree black belt in judo, using
the Japanese term for "begin" employed by referees
to start and resume judo matches.
about how to resolve the dispute, Putin referred
to the "50-50 split solution" used in settling a
40-year territorial dispute with China and said a
similar approach could be taken with Tokyo.
"That would be like a hikiwake," he
said, using another Japanese judo term meaning
Judo diplomacy has continued to
stir Japan-Russia relations. Japanese Prime
Minister Yoshihiko Noda, another judo lover who
also has a second-degree black belt, has acted in
concert with Putin. During his first meeting with
the Russian leader, which took place in Mexico on
the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit on May 18,
Noda told him he wanted to make their meeting the
hajime, or beginning, to move toward
negotiations at ministerial and working levels
over the territorial row.
The two leaders
seem to have succeeded in establishing a rapport
by discussing judo. They pledged to exchange the
national judo uniforms that the two countries'
teams will wear at the London Olympics this
summer. Noda also offered to present Putin with a
portrait of Jigoro Kano, the founder of Kodokan
judo, whom the Russian president admires.
Economic cooperation Putin has
expressed a strong intention to have bilateral
economic cooperation take precedence over the
territorial problem. This is the basic approach
Moscow has taken since the Soviet era, of seeking
results in the form of economic assistance from
Japan, while at the same time avoiding making
concessions to Tokyo in the territorial dispute.
Japan, meanwhile, has abandoned its
traditional policy of inseparably linking
political and economic issues. Since the
territorial problem is extremely difficult to
solve, Tokyo now sticks to its pragmatic approach
to economic and international cooperation with
Moscow to build a firmer bilateral relationship.
The trade volume between the two nations
increased to more than US$30 billion last year,
hitting a new record.
Most recently, the
two nations on June 24 agreed that both
governments would provide necessary support for a
private-sector project to build a LNG plant in
Vladivostok in Russia's far east.
for LNG has jumped since the nuclear meltdown in
Fukushima last year, forcing Japan to rely more on
thermal power generation. With annual purchases of
80 million tonnes, Japan is the world's largest
importer of LNG.
For Russian, fast-growing
Asia is a huge, potentially lucrative market. With
the LNG terminal set to serve as a base to expand
its energy exports in Asia, it aims to strengthen
and expand its operations to compete with the
giant European and US energy companies that have
accelerated their entry to the Asian market. Also,
with European economies slumping further, Russia
has been boosting its economic links with Asia
The US may be concerned about a
possible thaw in relations between Japan and
Russia militarily and economically, amid a
sensitive period when US-Russia relations have
been strained over Iran's nuclear programs,
Russian-Syrian military cooperation, and other
China's growing naval
power The former Medvedev administration
took an increasingly aggressive approach to
Russia's territorial dispute with Japan.
Reportedly, now premier Medvedev is planning to
visit Etorofu Island, the largest of the disputed
islands, on July 4. He arrived on Monday in Vladivostok, where the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit will for the first time be held in Russia on September 8-9.
Japanese experts believe this is because
Medvedev personally aims to re-establish his
weakening political foundation after retiring from
the presidency. By showing nationalistic strong
images to the Russian public, he and his aides may
attempt to buoy his popularity.
may also want to prey on political confusion in
Japan, whose politicians are currently indulging
in infighting over Prime Minister Noda's plans to
double the national sales tax.
Japanese perspective, in such an unstable
political situation, the negotiations over the
territorial dispute don't seem to be getting
In a broader picture, Medvedev's
upcoming second visit to one of the disputed
islands may result from Russia's long-term
national strategy mentioned in the new Russian
Military Doctrine, which was approved in February
By 2025, China is expected to become
the world's largest economy, surpassing the US. If
that comes true, China will occupy the West
Pacific and the US will occupy the East Pacific as
a natural step of power balance. Thus Russia needs
to have a strong footing in the East Asia,
extending into the West Pacific. Russia is now
aggressively making Kunashiri and Etorofu islands
into militant strongholds. It is in a hurry to
restore its influence before China becomes a
superpower in this region. It plans to deploy
French-made Mistral-class amphibious assault ships
to those islands.
In December 2010, Moscow
established one of the four new military districts
(MDs) and unified strategic commands (USCs) in
Khabarovsk. It didn't place the headquarters of
the Eastern MD (USC East) in Vladivostok, home
port of the Russian Pacific Fleet. Military
experts believe this is because Khabarovsk is in
the inland areas close to China.
Kosuke Takahashi is a
Tokyo-based Japanese journalist. Besides Asia
Times Online, he also writes for Jane's Defence
Weekly as Tokyo correspondent. His Twitter account
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