For a moment last week it seemed that Russian President Vladimir Putin was ushering in a bright new era in relations with Japan, with the surprise offer of a post-Second World War peace treaty.
But a deeper look into Putin’s remarks at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok has quickly revealed the opposite. He has effectively ruled out further discussion on the issue that has blocked treaty negotiations for so long — Japan’s claim to four small islands that the Soviet Union occupied in 1945.
Moreover, the public way in which Putin revealed his hand, will not only make it difficult for him to row back but also ensured maximum embarrassment for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The Russian leader addressed the Vladivostok audience just after the Japanese prime minister had said in a speech that the absence of a peace treaty after 70 years was abnormal.
Speaking with Abe next to him, Putin said: «It has dawned on me that we should sign a peace treaty, not now, but before the year is out, and without any preconditions … . To my mind, this would certainly make it easier for us to resolve all the problems that we have been unable to cope with for 70 years.»
The audience applauded, and journalists hurried to report the breaking news. But as commentators looked into the president’s remarks, it became clear that far from reaching out a hand to Abe, he was snubbing his guest.
Putin made it clear that he was not going to dance with Tokyo the same way he has been doing in recent years while building up a special relationship with Abe. All talk of mutual political concessions — including territorial arrangements — would be put off indefinitely.
Putin has dropped several hints over a decade that Moscow is ready to return to the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Declaration, under which the Soviet Union was to cede two of the four disputed islands after signing a full-fledged peace treaty. But the document was not implemented then because of deep disagreements over the U.S. military presence in Japan.
From the late 1950s to 1991, Moscow simply denied the existence of a territorial dispute. Shortly before the Soviet Union collapsed, the Kremlin finally admitted that there was an issue but Russian-Japanese relations have remained decidedly odd.
Much of the past 25 years has been filled with verbal gymnastics designed to produce the impression that peace treaty and territorial issue were not in limbo and solutions were possible. The two sides held carefully staged summits to maintain ties without raising excessive expectations or killing hopes.
Territorial concessions are difficult in any country. In the case of Russia and Japan, both countries would have to make concessions, but public opinion in both states resents such ideas.
Putin and Abe have developed close ties and both wish to break the deadlock, but both are faced with strict domestic political constraints.
Why did it look this time that the solution was more likely? Firstly, Putin is a strong president with a tough nationalist reputation. Only such a leader can make concessions.
Secondly, Russia has attached increasing significance to Asia. It actively seeks partners to counterbalance China, Asia’s dominant power and one that has in the past appeared threatening to Moscow. Japan is an obvious partner, especially as it can also be a source of investment for Siberia and Russia’s Far East.
Thirdly, the deepening U.S.-China strategic conflict has thrown Asia off balance. Customary relations are changing, opening opportunities for Moscow.
So why have these factors not finally pushed Putin into a deal with Abe?
First, while Putin remains Russia’s unquestioned leader, his time in office is drawing to an end and is certain to be followed by a transition which is always strained in centralized systems. Political consolidation is a priority, and territorial concessions are hardly the best way forward.
Next, hopes for a Japanese investment influx have not materialized. Although Tokyo is trying hard to minimize its participation in the American crusade against Russia, it must listen to Washington, its top political and security partner.
Even within Japan the stalemate over the territorial issue is a brake on economic cooperation. According to the Japan External Trade Organization, Japanese companies accounted for just 0.03% of direct foreign investments in Russia in 2017.
Finally, the U.S. administration’s pressure on allies and opponents in Asia has accelerated political shifts. China, which only two years ago was cautious about relations with Russia, is now encouraging them, even in defense. There is no question of a full-blown alliance, but cooperation is increasingly close, the latest example being the large-scale joint Vostok 2018 military exercises.
With U.S. President Donald Trump promoting global competition instead of cooperation, Beijing is more interested than before in partnership with Russia. The Kremlin, too, increasingly values cooperation with China now that the U.S. is cranking up the pressure on Moscow, for example, with sanctions. Russia is less interested in balancing China, with or without Japan, as common interests with Beijing have become stronger.
Meanwhile, Japan wants to strengthen relations with the U.S. Abe is one of few allies to have managed to build good relations with Trump. Russia and Japan are simply on different sides of a growing global standoff.
Putin seems to be tired of the ritual dancing involved with Tokyo. By nature, he prefers a direct, if blunt, exchange of views to the drawn-out folding of political origami. As he grows older, Putin seems to be less willing to spend time on complex matters where the result is not guaranteed.
Many Russian officials consider that far from winning a friend, a deal with Tokyo could turn Japan into a hostile force. As the Kommersant newspaper put it recently: «If it were not for the territorial issue and the irrational belief of the Japanese that it can be resolved, Japan would be ‘the U.K. of the East,’ the most anti-Russian country in Asia.»
Abe should not hold his breath for a Russian change of heart.