Dmitry Medvedev has visited the Kuril Islands again, this time as prime minister. His first visit in the fall of 2010 when he was Russia’s president caused an uproar in Tokyo and provoked a crisis in bilateral relations. Japan’s reaction is unlikely to be different this time. His first visit to the Kurils could be explained by strategic considerations, but the reason for going there again now is unclear.
Medvedev’s presidency was marked by Russia’s growing attention to Asia, and his visit to the Kuril Islands was a logical part of that new course. Moscow adopted this policy to show that it is an Asian power and has no intention of withdrawing from Asia. A visit to the disputed Kuril Islands was an ideal way to demonstrate this new mood to Japan and all the other Asian countries, including China. In addition, the first ever visit to the Kuril Islands by a Russian president showed that the country’s leadership takes care of even its remotest regions, so it was a win-win decision politically.
The response of the Japanese government and Prime Minister Naoto Kan was surprisingly ill-considered and unprofessional. Caught off guard (despite leaks about the planned visit, the Japanese Embassy in Moscow convinced Tokyo that the visit would be called off), the Japanese government wanted to respond harshly but feared that this would only make the situation worse. Its indecision surprised observers and led to sharp criticism at home. However, that was not the only reason for berating the government of Naoto Kan, who resigned in August last year.
The current government of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, headed by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, is acting much more professionally and with far greater restraint. Moreover, Japan is pinning its hopes on an intensification of relations with Russia now that Vladimir Putin has returned to the presidency. This is understandable, as the few (admittedly modest) achievements in Russian-Japanese relations since the ending of the Cold War are all associated with Putin. They include the Sakhalin gas project and Putin’s visit to Japan as prime minister in 2009, which was praised as businesslike and promising. Putin even hinted at the possibility of a compromise in the territorial dispute in 2004, but Tokyo chose to ignore the hint. It is clear, however, that Putin does not intend to quarrel with Japan and in general is wary of Asia because of the rapidly changing balance of power there, in particular because of the growth of China. He knows that Russia is likely to have to work hard to maintain a balance in this part of the world.
It is therefore difficult to understand why Medvedev went to Kunashir. The situation has not improved since his previous visit in 2010, so he can make similar statements on the results of his visit. As for urging ministers to visit the region, he has done that before and besides, as prime minister he can simply order them to go there. Instead of indicating the region’s importance, his second visit merely highlights how little has been done there in the last two years. Japan’s reaction is predictable: no government is going to ignore such actions, which means that Medvedev’s visit will complicate bilateral relations. On the other hand, this result could be a deliberate part of policy, though the reason for it remains unclear. Two years ago the reason was understood, but not this time.
Russian-Japanese relations are heavily dependent on this territorial dispute, and there are no prospects on the horizon for resolving it. The heaps of historical documents substantiating their claims to ownership of the islands that both sides have accumulated offer no realistic solution to the conflict. If the dispute is to be resolved at all, it must come through a political deal (both parties will need to find historical arguments to justify their decision in the eyes of the public, but that is a technicality). But a deal of this kind is highly unlikely, since it is a matter of national prestige for both Russia and Japan, and those types of issues are the most painful to resolve.
But if we admit that a compromise is possible, its timeframe will be limited by two factors: the political situation in Russia and in the Pacific region, which hinges on changes in China’s geopolitical weight.
In terms of domestic policy, a compromise with Japan, which will entail giving up some of the islands, is more likely when the authorities do not have to take public opinion into account. In other words, this kind of decision can be taken by an authoritarian government. If the choice is made in favor of a democratic expression of will (Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has mentioned the possibility of a referendum on the issue of the Kuril Islands), the result is almost certain to be a resolute ‘no’: people are unlikely to vote for giving anything up. The situation was most favorable eight years ago when Putin hinted at the possibility of a compromise because the Russian authorities were sufficiently authoritarian then and also confident of their standing in the foreseeable future. The situation is less certain now, but there is still a chance.
The second factor concerns China. The balance of forces and influence in Russian-Chinese relations is not in Russia’s favor. If current trends persist, in five to seven years’ time Russia’s foreign policy, at least in the Asia-Pacific region, will have to take much more account of China’s opinion. In other words, Russia’s ability to make decisions which China could interpret as infringing on its sphere of interests will be limited. And China is unlikely to be pleased with a Russian-Japanese compromise on the territorial issue, which would create a precedent (China has territorial disputes with nearly all of its neighbors in East and Southeast Asia) and also indicate rapprochement between two major regional powers.
By all objective indicators, economic, geopolitical and security-based, Russia and Japan need good relations. The territorial dispute is the biggest obstacle in this respect. It cannot be resolved now, but at least the two sides could abstain from fueling tensions without good reason.