Russia–Japan Political Dialogue at the Highest Level: Opportunities and Perspectives

17 may 2017

Vitaly Shvydko - Ph.D. in Economics, Head of the Sector of Economics and Politics of Japan

Resume: The asymmetry of the views and interests of the two sides with respect to a dialogue at the highest level significantly limits both the opportunities and the visible effects of that dialogue. As we move deeper into the drawn-out Russia–Japan dialogue, expectations as to what can actually be achieved have inevitably dwindled.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Moscow in late April turned out to be a rather low-key affair, attracting scant attention in both the Japanese and Russian media. Unlike President Putin’s 2016 visit to Japan, which had been repeatedly postponed beforehand and which many quietly thought might bring some political breakthroughs, Abe’s arrival in Moscow was seen as the next round in the drawn-out high-level dialogue that would deal primarily with business-related issues, rather than openly contentious ones. Accordingly, there were no preliminary consultations shrouded in mystery this time. Nor were there any dramatic twists that could have led in any direction. In general, the entire process was in keeping with the overall nature of Russia–Japan relations as they have developed in recent years.

Those who keep an eye on these relations will definitely see the inherent asymmetry of the parties’ positions and interests. On the one hand, the focus of the political game for the Japanese political establishment is, and has always been, the territorial delineation of the Kuril Islands, which from the Japanese perspective is an issue of the Northern Territories lost to the Soviet Union in 1945 as a result of the Second World War. Even though it has not been stated officially (as was the case with the famous eight-point plan of cooperation with Russia put forward by Abe in 2016), there is a tacit understanding among Japanese politicians that any steps taken to resolve the “territorial dispute” should be done in a format that would satisfy the powers that be in Japan.

In recent times, Russia’s position on two issues that Tokyo sees as being the main threats to its security has acquired a significance that is comparable to that of the Northern Territories dispute. We are talking here about Pyongyang’s nuclear missile programme and the steps taken by China to assert the political fait accompli of its physical control over parts of the East China and South China seas.

The Russian leadership is interested in minimizing the areas in the bilateral talks occupied by these issues. Moscow desperately wants to avoid looking like an ally of Japan in a potential conflict with North Korea and China, especially if such a conflict were to spill over into a military confrontation. And if the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is still prepared to publicly condemn the actions of the North Korean leadership and warn it of the possible negative consequences, it certainly does not want another reason to quarrel with China. As far as Moscow is concerned, the issue of territorial delimitation has already been decided by history, and any discussion of the matter should be concerned only with the conditions for using (including jointly) the territories in question without changing the status quo with regard to sovereign control over them.

Moscow sees relations with Japan developing along the lines of expanded economic, academic and even military contacts and exchanges, without tying itself to any kind of political conditions or obligations. We are referring (in particular) here to economic deals and projects that Moscow sees as purely commercial enterprises — that is, they are not a form of assistance from Russia, nor are they political steps to meet Japan halfway on certain issues. And the proposed “cooperation” is certainly not a kind of advance payment for future political concessions. More likely it is the opposite: Moscow sees the participation of Japanese companies in the economic activity of the country as a manifestation of Russia’s goodwill, offering its neighbours access to Russian natural and human resources.

Moscow is primarily interested in the political side of things. What Moscow needs from Tokyo is a more or less open recognition of new global realities — the breakdown of the current world order in which the United States and the pro-Atlantic contingent of the European elites had taken it upon themselves to determine and exegete the rules of the game in global politics. Accordingly, the Russian leadership would like for Japan to demonstrate through its actions that it recognizes Russia’s right to act in international politics in accordance with its own notions of fairness and legitimacy, including without regard for Japan’s military and political partner.

It is precisely this asymmetry of the views and interests of the two sides with respect to a dialogue at the highest level that significantly limits both the opportunities and the visible effects of the current dialogue. Granted, the very fact that a dialogue is taking place is important — for both sides. It affords them (in their own eyes as well) great significance as subjects, rather than objects, of global politics. What is more, it helps the two sides demonstrate their leadership qualities and reiterate their positions on national and global issues. However, as we move deeper into the drawn-out dialogue, expectations as to what can actually be achieved have inevitably dwindled. And interest from the media and the expert community has naturally subsided as well.

All things considered, the Japanese Prime Minister has already started to sense the negative consequences of the psychological fatigue felt the general population after countless promises of results — results that are becoming more and more trivial by the day, or even completely ephemeral. Criticism (albeit it polite criticism) of his diplomacy with regard to Russia is growing. Heads of companies have alluded to the fact that they are being compelled, for political reasons, to demonstrate far greater interest in Russian projects than projects than those that can be justified by their long-term business strategies. Political observers stress that the position of the Russian leadership on the issues that are most important for the Japanese public may have changed, but not in a way that is favourable for Japan. There are areas where at first glance it would seem that positive shifts have taken place. But there are several pitfalls and traps lurking here that people simply choose to ignore.

The “personal” diplomacy of Shinzo Abe, the effectiveness of which he has never doubted (not in public anyway), quite clearly has its limitations. It turned out to be largely ineffective in relations with the new U.S. administration, despite the haste with which the Japanese leader tried to establish a rapport with those in charge, not even waiting for Donald Trump’s official inauguration. And Abe’s claims that he and President Putin enjoy a friendly and trusting relationship (it is uncharacteristic for Japanese diplomats, who favour “simple” forms of address, to make statements about informal friendships, etc.) have not led to any significant changes in the Russian President’s position on the most important issues.

However, it is not just about over-emphasizing personal relations (the role of which can never be overestimated in international politics). One cannot but see that Moscow continues to lose interest in further “bargaining” with Japan.

Political and economic motivation — overcoming the sanctions imposed by the West — is wearing thin. The sanctions of the Collective West in key areas are gradually eroding. And Japan has had little to do with this, if anything at all. Supplies of Russian natural gas to Europe this past winter reached a record high. Preparatory work for Nord Stream II is in full swing, despite the protests of Poland and the Baltic countries: on April 24, Gazprom announced that it had signed agreements with five western countries to finance 50 per cent of the project’s total (9.5 billion euros), which it hopes to complete by 2019. Information about the possibility of resurrecting the South Stream project are thrown about from time to time. And the prospects for resuming work on the Turkish Stream are looking more and more realistic with each passing day.

One of the fallouts of this is that increasing gas supply to the east (to Asia) is no longer seen as an urgent necessity. Accordingly, political pressure along the lines of the persistent “hilling” of Japanese and Chinese businesses with an eye on the forced “pivot to the East” has clearly subsided of late.

Depicting the President of the Russian Federation as a politically valuable partner for western leaders — one who enjoys equal status and international clout — is also losing its relevance against the backdrop of the statements that come out from time to time that without the participation of the Russian leadership it would be impossible to stabilize the situation in the majority of the volatile and potentially dangerous conflict zones in the long term.

The economic interest of the Russian leadership in the steps taken by Japanese businesses to meet them halfway are also rather limited. The opportunities for economic cooperation, particularly in the Russian Far East, are hardly enough to produce a new “economic miracle.” Meanwhile, the effectiveness of limited financial “injections” of Japanese capital are not comparable to the issues that can only be successfully addressed through the fundamental improvement of the Russian economic mechanism.

In these conditions, further rapprochement of the Russian and Japanese positions on the key issues that divide politicians and citizens in the two countries is only possible in the long term on the basis of a broad dialogue that takes all the complex circumstances and objective difficulties into account.


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