Building Momentum: An Imminent Japan-Russia Rapprochement?
No. 1 2014 January/March
Jonathan Berkshire Miller

J. Berkshire Miller is a fellow on Japan for the Pacific Forum CSIS. Miller also chairs the Japan-Korea Working Group at the Pacific Forum.

Amid debate about a renaissance of U.S. power in Asia, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been thinking about his own “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Far East. Russia has always maintained its historical legacy as a Pacific power, but realistically this has largely been ignored for decades. Japan meanwhile has been challenged vigorously this past year by China, and to a less extent, South Korea and Russia, on its territorial disputes. This, coupled with China’s increased assertiveness on security policy in the region, has created an environment with new challenges that Japan, the U.S. and Russia must confront. Japan and Russia especially are facing an uncertain future as Asia continues to morph into the most strategically important region in the world.

The diplomatic game in East Asia is becoming increasingly opaque with an intransigent regime in North Korea, a fractured Seoul-Tokyo partnership and a leader in Beijing who appears willing to take strategic gambles in the East China Sea and elsewhere. Spending diplomatic capital on improving the Japan-Russia relationship does have risks for both sides but will cost little compared to the potential rewards, the most significant one being a less handcuffed states of bilateral relations.


China’s rapid growth presents challenges and opportunities for Russia and Japan. Both have significant investments with Beijing and rely on having access to the Chinese market. Despite this, there is clear recognition in both capitals that a Sino-centric continent is not in their interests. But China is not the only issue policymakers in Tokyo and Moscow are concentrating on. Asia’s security infrastructure has become increasingly dynamic and fragile and is riddled with potential landmines for both states including a truculent regime in North Korea, increased competition for resources and influence in Central Asia and transnational threats such as international terrorism and organized crime.

Amid these conditions, Russia and Japan are obliged to recalculate their strategies in order to adapt for a future geopolitical realignment in Asia. A strengthened partnership between Tokyo and Moscow makes sense – both sides recognize the stakes and that the rules of the game are no longer static. This was expressed quite transparently when the foreign ministers of both states met earlier last year and released an official statement claiming that “Japan-Russia relations are taking on a new importance amid drastic changes in the security environment in the Asia Pacific region.” Unfortunately for those hoping for a reset in Japan-Russia relations, there are serious obstacles that prevent their partnership from expanding beyond its current state. The two countries have gone to war twice in the past century. The first occasion demonstrated to the world that Japan had arrived as a legitimate military power with its stunning defeat of the Russian Empire in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5. The second had a different result after the Soviet Union sent the Red Army into Manchuria to claim territorial spoils from a fatally crippled Imperial Japan at the conclusion of World War II.

While the legacies of historical wounds often remain potent, it is their tangible element that complicates attempts to repair frayed relationships. This is the case with Japan and Russia as both states have been denied a cathartic restart due to the festering territorial dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands (referred to as the Northern Territories in Japan). There are positive signs, however, as the two countries work together on several important bilateral and multilateral issues such as nuclear non-proliferation, counterterrorism, energy security and information technology. So while the Kuril dispute has thus far not made the two strategic rivals, it has smothered any chance of a deep and comprehensive partnership.


Last April, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Moscow for a landmark summit meeting with Putin. The visit marked the first time a Japanese leader made an official state visit to Russia since former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Putin met for three days in 2003. Koizumi also visited Russia in 2005 and 2006 for a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the G8 Leaders Summit in Saint Petersburg. Former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda also visited Russia in 2008 but the meetings were labelled “unofficial” by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since this visit, Abe and Putin have met several other times, including at the sidelines of the G20 meetings and the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings.

These summits can be described as incremental confidence-building meetings that helped push along a historically strained bilateral relationship between Moscow and Tokyo. Abe stressed that his trip to Russia last spring was a positive step to increase business ties between Japan and Russia. Specifically, both sides remain interested in more robust cooperation on energy development in Russia’s Far East. Both countries are working to build on promise of the 2003 Japan-Russia Action Plan – signed by Putin and former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi – that calls for joint energy development on the Russian island of Sakhalin and areas of Siberia. There was no breakthrough deal on natural gas or energy cooperation during the first Abe-Putin summit, but there was a strong indication from both sides to work more closely towards this end. Abe expressed this sentiment noting that “our potential for cooperation has not been opened wide enough”.

Similarly, on the territorial dispute there was no grand bargain but there was considerable traction made with the agreement for both sides to enter into formal meetings to resolve the row. Abe and Putin also agreed that it was “abnormal” that Japan and Russia have not yet concluded a formal peace treaty to end their hostilities during World War II – a symbolic formality held up by the Kurils row. The official visit of Abe to Russia was significant because it demonstrated that Japan is gradually changing its calculus with regard the territorial dispute and its effect on greater bilateral ties. That said, there is still a long way to go in bridging the trust-gap between Tokyo and Moscow and both sides will need to keep in mind domestic considerations regarding concessions on the Kurils. Both sides appear to be taking a cautious and incremental approach to a détente.

One of the main deliverables from the Abe-Putin summit was the commitment to commence regular “2+2” dialogues between respective ministers of defense and foreign affairs. The first such meeting took place last November in Tokyo. The “2+2” marks a significant improvement in bilateral ties which have been plagued for the past several years as both sides traded barbs on their lingering territorial dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands. During the meetings, both sides agreed to increase cooperation in a number of strategic areas as an initial step in elevating the partnership. Indeed, Tokyo pushed to expand its ties with Russia to transcend energy trade and encompass more alignment on international security issues. At the time, Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida stressed that, “To boost cooperation in the field of security and not just in the field of economic and people exchanges, means that we are improving overall Japan-Russia ties. This would also have a positive impact on the negotiations to sign a peace treaty.”

Specifically, both sides agreed to launch an inaugural set of bilateral cyber-security talks. This announcement follows up months of speculation that Tokyo and Moscow would engage in high-level cyber talks. The first set of talks is slated to discuss critical infrastructure protection. The ministers also committed to carry out joint drills between Japan’s Maritime Self Defense Force and the Russian navy. The exercises would focus on anti-piracy and counter terrorism. The sides also agreed to step up cooperation on a range of other issues such as drug trafficking and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Moscow however was cautious to couch its bolstered engagement with Tokyo though so as not to inflame ties with China. Kishida and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov both noted that the meeting was not “directed at any one country.” Kazuhiko Togo, director of the Institute of World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University, agreed with this approach stating “Japan needs to be careful not to do anything provocative against the Russian position on China. A naïve “China card” statement is not only foolish, but also dangerous in undermining the basis of improved relations between Japan and Russia.” The next “2+2” meeting is slated to be held this year in Moscow.


While the personal relationship between Abe and Putin is a good sign, will this really have an impact in resolving a long running Japan-Russia rift? What, if anything, has changed and can we reasonably expect amelioration in Japan’s relations with Russia? First, it is important to contextualize any policy shift within the dynamic regional environment. As noted above, both countries will face similar challenges in the future. Of course despite these regional changes, the fundamental wedge – sovereignty over the Northern Territories – in Japan’s relations with Russia has not changed in the past decade. However, there are signals that this sticking point may be up for compromise. Last February, former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, emboldened by his personal friendship with Putin, made a visit to Russia and laid the groundwork for Abe’s spring trip to Moscow. Mori made waves in Japan by going on national television before his visit and floating the necessity for a compromise on the territorial dispute. At the time, Mori seemed to indicate that Japan should accept a settlement that ceded – at least temporarily – Etorofu to Russia while Tokyo would regain sovereignty and administration of Kunashir, Shikotan and the Khabomai islands. Mori justified this concession as a “realistic approach” to resolving the long standing territorial row between the two countries.

The Abe government swiftly rejected such as plan as contrary to Japan’s policy that all four islands be returned. But it is likely that Tokyo was “testing the water” on the practicality of such a diplomatic gesture. It may be premature to think that a deal on the Northern Territories in the offing however. Nationalist sentiment in Japan remains strong over the return of all four islands. Similarly, the Russian public strongly opposes a return of the islands to Japan. The islands are home to thousands of Russian citizens and remain a nationalist badge symbolizing its victory during World War II. But public sentiment is not the only reason. The islands are geopolitically important to Russia and represent a strategic gateway to East Asia that complements its port in Vladivostok.

The Kuril Islands will be an essential element for any potential Japan-Russia rapprochement, but it would be myopic to focus entirely on these issues. Leadership stability in both countries provides a unique opportunity for Japan to cast aside a decade of failed policies and inaction on Russia. Indeed, Japan and Russia both continue to face unique pressures and challenges in the Asia-Pacific and have many common strategic interests. One of these areas for cooperation is energy security. As mentioned above, both countries are working to build on promise of the 2003 Japan-Russia Action Plan. Last November, the Asahi Shimbun reported that a consortium of four Japanese gas companies had agreed to plans to construct a 1400 km pipeline that would import liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Sakhalin. Japan and Russia also have annual energy consultations at the working-level.

The strategic triangle between Japan, Russia and China is also an important consideration regarding energy security. Both Japan and China are net energy importers, while Russia is one of the world’s largest energy exporters. Tokyo’s energy needs have been magnified since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011 and the subsequent public distrust of nuclear power as an acceptable source of energy. Russia has also made a dramatic push to promote itself as a legitimate Pacific power through its symbolic hosting of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leader’s Summit in Vladivostok in 2012.

While all of this appears to give leverage to Russia in energy negotiations with Japan, there are areas for mutual gain. Russia continues to face hard-nosed negotiators in Beijing and this has trimmed Moscow’s hopes for a lucrative gas deal with China. As a result, Putin has been aggressively approaching other suitors in Asia such as South Korea and Japan in order to widen Russia’s energy net. Essentially, Moscow is desperately looking to strengthen its supplier-hand in order to leverage itself better in gas negotiations with China. Having a serious energy relationship with Japan not only provides Russia with this competitive advantage, but also adds more revenue to Moscow’s coffers.

Despite Russia’s intentions, Abe can leverage energy negotiations with Putin in order to secure fair prices and work to resolve the territorial dispute. The reason for Russia’s placing urgency on solid relations with Japan is largely because of energy politics. Russia is also acutely cognizant about the “shale gas revolution” in North America as well as the potential for untapped shale in China. Both of these developments have the potential to limit Moscow’s bargaining power. Shoichi Ito recently summed this point up in a commentary for the Brookings Institution, “The U.S. shale gas revolution came as a harsh blow to Moscow, given that Russia is frustrated by the gradual decreases of its natural gas exports to Europe as consumption there declines and the EU seeks diversification of natural gas supply routes.”

Another key area for cooperation is North Korea. Tokyo and Moscow remain focussed on a denuclearized Korean Peninsula. Unfortunately, both Russia and Japan are both in danger of being squeezed out of dialogue as Pyongyang ramps up its provocations in an attempt to force concessions bilaterally from the US. Any illusions that Kim Jong Un would reform North Korea have been met with bitter disappointment after two missile launches and nuclear test within a year. The US, South Korea and Japan have traditionally coordinated policies on dealing with the North’s intransigence but will need more players in the tent to apply the requisite pressure for Pyongyang to change its calculus. Russia also has no interest in a nuclearized Korean peninsula and is eager to work with South Korea and Japan on a natural gas pipeline that would traverse from Siberia to the Sea of Japan. And Japan is especially invested in its partnership with Russia on this front as Moscow has previously mediated the contentious issue of the return of Japan’s abducted nationals.

Japan and Russia also cooperate on many other fronts too including nuclear disarmament, counterterrorism, narcotics smuggling and humanitarian assistance. The nuclear crisis at Fukushima Dai Ichi, along with the rapid growth of nuclear energy in Asia, for example could bring together Russia and Japan to work on nuclear safety issues. Moreover, the three should continue to actively contribute to reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism in Asia through existing threat reduction instruments such as the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, the G8 Global Partnership, the Proliferation Security Initiative and the Nuclear Security Summit process.

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Japan and Russia need to finally come together and move beyond the decade’s long “détente” stage into a more proactive “rapprochement” era. There are several positive trends pointing in this direction and confidence has grown both in Moscow and Tokyo after several meetings between respective leaders and senior officials over the past year. However, while both sides offered glowing assessments of their emerging partnership, the resolution of the island row remains a critical sticking point. Both sides are currently negotiating with purpose at the working level on these talks in order to actualize peace treaty negotiations. A mutually acceptable compromise on the Kuril row and a formal peace treaty will be the first and most important step to reinvigorate cooperation on a host of common strategic interests.