A step forward for Japan-Russia ties

The closely watched summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not appear to have produced any concrete progress on the long-standing territorial row over the group of islands off Hokkaido that were seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War II, which has prevented the two countries from concluding a formal peace treaty. Instead, Abe and Putin emphasized that joint economic activities on the disputed islands as well as a range of economic cooperation between the two countries that they agreed on in their two days of talks will help build mutual confidence and contribute to ending the “extraordinary” situation that Tokyo and Moscow lack a peace treaty seven decades after the war’s end.

Abe’s call for a “future-oriented” approach to resolving the territorial row that would not be bound by the past — based on the recognition that the dispute would never be settled with both sides merely reiterating their respective positions — sounds pragmatic. It will indeed be impossible to resolve in just one summit a dispute that for many decades has effectively been in a stalemate. But whether their agreement this week marks a “major step forward” in resolving the biggest question between the two nations will depend on their future efforts.

Evidently, Abe has staked much on seeking a breakthrough on the bilateral row over the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islets. He has counted greatly on building a strong personal rapport with Putin — this week’s meeting was their 16th as leaders of their respective countries and the fourth this year alone, even as Russia was the under the pressure of the Group of Seven sanctions for its annexation of Crimea in 2014 — as leverage to build momentum for resolving the dispute.

But earlier hopes that Putin’s visit to Japan, the first by a Russian leader (except for international conferences) since the one by Putin himself 11 years ago would somehow produce significant progress in the dispute — possibly including some kind of a deal on the sovereignty of at least Shikotan and the Habomais, which the Soviet Union agreed to in a joint declaration in 1956 to hand over to Japan when the two countries conclude a peace treaty — were dashed well before the president’s arrival.

In an interview with Japanese media just ahead of his trip to Japan, Putin said that there are no territorial problems with Japan as far as Russia is concerned — that it is only Japan that believes its has territorial problems with Russia. While Putin has reaffirmed the validity of the 1956 declaration, he said Japan’s position of concluding a peace treaty by addressing the sovereignty of all the islands, including the much larger Kunashiri and Etorofu, goes beyond the framework of the 1956 document and is a “separate matter.” Abe himself also appeared to be playing down the prospect of a breakthrough in the lead-up to his talks with Putin, saying that the territorial row would not be resolved in just one meeting.

That is indeed a rational assessment. So the question is whether the agreements that Abe concluded with Putin will set the stage for moving bilateral relations forward.

Along with a set of economic cooperation measures worth an estimated ¥300 billion ranging from the energy and medical sectors to development of Russia’s Far Eastern region, Abe and Putin agreed on joint economic activities on the disputed islands themselves — which was billed as an important step toward future conclusion of a peace treaty. Details of the regime under which the activities will be carried out — likely including fisheries, medical, environmental and tourism development — were set aside for further discussions between the two countries. But the talks on such a scheme itself could be bogged down by their differences over sovereignty over the islands.

Originally proposed by Russia in the 1990s, the idea of joint development of the islands has not made much progress out of concern that operation of Japanese businesses there could amount to Tokyo recognizing Russia’s jurisdiction over the disputed territories, but it was reportedly revived by Abe when he met with Putin in Sochi in May. The two leaders said the joint economic activities will be pursued in ways that do not infringe on the position of either Japan or Russia concerning the peace treaty issue. But an aide to Putin has reportedly said the activities would be conducted under Russia’s legal system. How the two governments can reconcile their differences to establish a mutually acceptable framework for the activities on the islands may test the two leaders’ stated commitment to revolving the long-standing dispute.