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4 January 2017

The illusions of Moscow-Tokyo rapprochement

Russia and Japan fail again to make peace 

Seventy years after the end of the Second World War, Russia and Japan have still not signed a bilateral peace treaty. Although President Vladimir Putin admits that this situation is an “anachronism”, he clearly is not ready to do anything to overcome this situation. Indeed, a careful perusal of the recent Russo-Japanese summit shows clearly that Russia insists that Japan not demand retrocession of the Kurile Islands, and accept the outcome of World War II as legitimate; offer Russia multiple opportunities for reviving bilateral trade and Japanese investment in Russia; and generally concede on virtually all outstanding issues in order to establish “an atmosphere of trust” with Russia.  In return, Moscow commits itself to virtually nothing. Under the circumstances it is difficult to see what Japan gained by this intense four-year process.  But it is easy to see what Putin got, namely an end to isolation, and the promise of some major economic assistance, which to be fair, has yet to materialize for the most part. Thus the obstacles that now loom over the protracted bilateral negotiations appear to be compounded in equal measure of Japanese illusions, and Russian intransigence.

Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is driven by a sense of personal and familial commitment to repair Russo-Japanese relations.  Abe is also driven by a determination to restore Japan to the status of a major Asian power that can conduct an independent foreign policy. Therefore a treaty with Russia would demonstrate Japan’s abilities to act in this manner.  Abe is also probably relying on Donald Trump’s anti-Chinese and pro-Russian instincts to approach Putin. Finally, fear of China drives virtually every aspect of Japanese foreign and defense policies, and leads Abe and his supporters to argue that a treaty will entice Russia away from China’s grasp and the mounting evidence of a Sino-Russian alliance. 

Yet there is no evidence that a treaty with Japan will reduce Russia’s increasing economic-political dependence on China, and it is almost certain that behind the scenes, Beijing is doing everything possible to block a bilateral accord.  Indeed, the summit’s failure to advance either normalization and a peace treaty, or large-scale economic relations showed the China’s success in binding Russia to Beijing, and Japan’s inability to outbid it for Russia’s favor. Japan cannot give Russia what China can and does give Russia, namely ideological and geopolitical solidarity among dictatorships.  Moreover, Japan wants territory back for its concessions, and China has wisely refrained from doing this, especially as Russia is now selling and leasing land in the Russian Far East to Chinese settlers. Additionally, Moscow cannot and will not assist Japan in dealing with the mounting threat of North Korean conventional and nuclear missiles. 

Japan also cannot shake the Russo-Chinese geopolitical solidarity in Asia.  If anything, both Moscow and Beijing stand behind Pyongyang’s resistance to America even though they clearly do not want to see a nuclear North Korea.  Despite that clear desire for a non-nuclear DPRK, Russian analysts virtually unanimously espouse Russian state policy in blaming the Korean stalemate wholly on American threats, and the desire to defend the US and South Korea, if not Japan, from North Korean missiles by the acquisition of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Air Defense) missile system. It also appears that Japan failed to take sufficient account of the fact that anti-Americanism now drives Russia’s Asia policy too, and what Moscow wants is not just economic benefits from Japan, but tangible signs of a rupture between Tokyo and Washington, something that Abe cannot and will not give for nothing. Thus, the idea that an agreement with Russia will in some meaningful way improve Japan’s regional strategic position appears to be illusory.

These are not the only Japanese illusions. Until at least quite recently, Abe and his government apparently believed they could persuade Moscow to return not just two of the Kurile Islands conquered by the USSR in 1945, as offered by Khrushchev in 1956 and by Putin, but all four of them.  The idea has always been that there supposedly exists a “natural complementarity” between the Japanese and Russian economies.  Therefore, in return for large-scale Japanese investment, trade, and now breaking of the sanctions regime, Russia would part with those islands. Indeed, not only have both sides discussed investment projects, but Tokyo also offered Moscow an 8-point program of substantial economic assistance to sweeten the pot. Though details are not known, it apparently includes a plan to exchange doctors and patients for advanced health care, and 30 joint projects, including liquefied natural gas (LNG), where Japan would presumably invest in Russian fields, thus breaking the sanctions regime in fact, if not de jure

Many of these projects are the same ones Moscow previously offered to other Asian countries with little success, and there are grounds for suspecting that Moscow is playing its old game of offering them to Japan to bid up the price others might want to pay for these energy sources. Moreover, given the negative record of Russian foreign economic relations with Japan, it remains an open secret that the Japanese business community remains quite leery of Russia. Indeed,  Japanese investment in Rosneft was scuppered by the arrest of Economy Minister Andrei Ulyukayev, and it has now been revealed that the Abe government had to offer that community special inducements to invest in Russia. In any case, Japan hardly needs Russian energy to make the large capital investments necessary to bring Russian oil and gas to Japan, as it only gets about 10% of its oil and 5% of its gas from Russian sources.  Therefore, most of these economic agreements are ultimately merely agreements to negotiate future accords, and may go the way of previous attempts to effectuate this supposed complementarity. 

Putin and Russian officials repeatedly insist that Japan accept that the USSR legitimately conquered the islands during World War II and have repeatedly fortified the islands against supposed military threats.  Indeed, in November 2016 Moscow deployed the Bal and Bastion anti-ship missiles to these islands, plainly indicating that they will not be relinquished to Japan.  If anything they will be further militarized under Russian control. 

Moscow’s refusal to compromise here evidently stems from the view that Japan has hitherto been unable to conduct an “independent” foreign policy and is too subservient to or dependent upon the U.S. to do so.  Therefore Russia can “impose terms” upon it.  Yet, since Abe defied Washington’s admonitions to break allied unity on sanctions and move forward with Moscow, it seems that Putin wants not just a deal but a victory to show Russia’s superior strength and determination and the US’ decline. 

If this assessment is correct then Putin’s visit may have been the last chance to bring about a normalization of bilateral ties.  In fact, out of 70 plus agreements signed, the total actual amount that will go to Russia is about $2.5 billion in investments.  The rest of these agreements are merely agreements to agree.  Both sides got rather little in tangible outcomes, but Russia probably got more. Meanwhile, Russia’s demands for a Japanese surrender at a time when Moscow needs Tokyo’s economic prowess much more than Japan needs Russian raw materials, and Russia’s unwillingness and inability to do anything for Japan regarding Korea and China, reveal an intransigence that may also be based on equally substantial Russian illusions.  The two sides may ultimately make a deal that could be a facade of what could have been done to hide the failure of the normalization process, but it will not eliminate the fundamental incompatibilities between the two states that this summit again revealed. Only a normalization process that actually satisfies both sides in relatively equal measure without unequal concessions by either side to the other in pursuit of illusory gains has a chance of enduring for a long time.  

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