The Kuril Social Contract
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Dmitry V. Trenin

National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
The Primakov Institute of World Economy and International Relations (IMEMO),
Moscow, Russia
The Center for International Security
The Sector for Non-Proliferation and Arms Limitation
Lead Researcher

Russo-Japanese dialogue on the peace treaty and territorial delimitation has predictably entered the decisive phase. The political calendar in Japan does not allow for further delays: Japanese Prime Minister Shinz? Abe will leave his seat no later than 2021. The current mandate of Russian President Vladimir Putin lasts until 2024, but political dynamics in Russia likewise do not allow the Kremlin to postpone important decisions until the end of his presidential term. If Japan and Russia should reach an agreement on the peace treaty and a territorial solution, they will need to do so in 2019. If not, these questions will remain unresolved indefinitely as the overall situation deteriorates.

Territorial delimitation takes more than political decisions and diplomatic finesse. Formal ratification of the agreement by the parliaments of the two countries is also a necessary but not sufficient condition. For the issue to be fully sealed, a significant majority in the public opinion of Russia and Japan will have to support the agreement. When Russia and China resolved their border dispute a decade and a half ago, with Moscow handing over several river islands to Beijing, the Kremlin was not particularly worried about explaining to its citizens why Russia was making territorial concessions to its neighbor. There were some local protests in the Far East, but these did not resonate and did not last. However, an attempt to repeat this experience in current conditions could have more serious repercussions.

Negotiations on the conditions for resolving the territorial dispute must be conducted in strict confidentiality; leaks can only jeopardize the process. At the same time, it is obvious that the basic conditions for a possible agreement have been laid out. Essentially, its foundation was set by the Soviet–Japanese Joint Declaration signed in Moscow in 1956. Tokyo’s readiness to proceed on the basis of this declaration, which Abe voiced publicly last fall, has marked a transition from the discussion of a problem that had been under way for twenty-five years to negotiations on its solution. Public statements by the Russian president and comments by his foreign minister, which have been firm—or even harsh— in style outline the terms under which Moscow is prepared to begin such talks. Abe’s January 22, 2019, visit to Moscow, which was preceded by the talks held there by Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, indicates that these negotiations have already begun.

Many important details still need to be worked out, but the overall contours of border delimitation are apparent. As a gesture of goodwill (and with certain conditions attached), Russia would transfer two small island territories—Shikotan and the Habomai group—to Japan, while Japan would renounce its claims to the larger Iturup and Kunashir islands. Japan would furthermore undertake to not allow the United States to set up military facilities on the islands it receives, to respect Russia’s continued right to enter and exit the Sea of Okhotsk, and to not interfere with Russia’s ability to exercise this right. In addition to the question of borders, Russia and Japan would negotiate a framework on joint economic activities in the South Kuril Islands, including the legal grounds for such activities, and work out a liberalized visa regime for the region.

The Japanese government and Prime Minister Abe personally will need to put a lot of effort into explaining to the Japanese people why Tokyo is willing—after so many decades of the official campaign seeking the return of the “Northern Territories”—to accept receiving just 7 percent of the area that Japan had claimed as its own. Tokyo will also have to convince Washington not to interfere with the resultant rapprochement between Japan and Russia. This would be a direct contradiction to the foreign policy course that successive U.S. administrations followed throughout the Cold War, and it is at odds with Washington’s current course of piling up pressure on Moscow on all fronts. This is a difficult objective, but Abe appears determined to achieve it.

The Kremlin will face a similar problem. Back when it was dealing with the question of the Chinese border, Moscow’s main internal argument in favor of an agreement with Beijing was that leaving the question unresolved went against Russia’s core interests, considering China’s rapid rise and the uncertainty about the position and policy of the future generation of Chinese leaders. These questions were not discussed publicly, in view of the nature of both the negotiating partner and the Russian public. However, now that Moscow is working with a different partner, one that is more open to discussions, as well as with a more demanding public at home, the questions of “why” and “what for” must be addressed publicly.

For example, one can assert with some confidence that maintaining the territorial dispute with Japan does not serve Russia’s interests in the long term. Clearly, Japan will not try to seize the Kuril Islands by force, but incidents in disputed waters are likely (similar to those in the Sea of Azov) and consequently the militarization of borders that are not recognized by Japan. Also likely is U.S. involvement in such militarization—certainly that is not a scenario that Russia should welcome.

Japan is currently a rare example of a G7 country that actively seeks closer relations with Russia. This is not a question of islands as much as it is a question of Greater Eurasia geopolitics. Shinz? Abe wants to build a partnership and cooperation with Moscow (as well as with New Delhi) in a way that allows Japan to feel more comfortable and more confident facing off against the growing giant of China. The Japanese prime minister likely also expects U.S. foreign policy to become more egocentric.

A failure of Abe’s attempt to make up with Moscow would inevitably result not only in a considerable cooling in Russo-Japanese relations but also in a slowdown in Japan’s gradual move toward more autonomy from the United States. As a result, Tokyo could become even more dependent on Washington, while Moscow—upon losing access to Japanese resources that could fuel domestic modernization and sustain a more active policy in Asia—would be forced to rely more and more on Beijing. As the confrontation between China and the United States escalates, the fate of Russia and Japan would not be enviable. It would be better for them to avoid such predicament.

There is talk in Russia about some competition between the “Chinese” and “Japanese” (or “U.S.-Japanese”) parties within the Moscow establishment. This is an oversimplification and an exaggeration, to put it mildly. There are things that are more important than money—even big money. As far as relations with China go, they have nothing to do with the status of the territorial dispute between Russia and Japan. China is Russia’s largest neighbor and a strategically important partner. Russian-Chinese relations, which I call an “entente cordiale,” are based on the principle of amiable cooperation between two great powers of equal footing that are free in their policy, including their choice of partners. In their day, the Chinese were able to overcome the negative memories of the past in the interests of engaging Japanese business in the modernization of their country. Now, Russia wants to do the same.

Thus, the Russo-Japanese diplomatic process is in the homestretch. Politicians will make decisions and diplomats will seek to work out mutually acceptable solutions, but the key question will be public ratification of agreements, if and when these agreements are reached. The Kremlin needs to understand clearly that it is up against not just Japan but also the Russian public—and based on public opinion surveys, two-thirds of Russians do not want to hand over the islands. The Kremlin will not be able to coerce the people into accepting its point of view. It will have to convince them, if it has valid arguments. If not, it will have to pay for the lost opportunities at a later point.

The article was originally published in Vedomosti