Last week The New York Times carried a short Reuters report headlined “Russia’s Putin says his Japan peace treaty proposal was no joke.” While most Western readers may not know the significance of the issue at hand, Tokyo has been making a big fuss out of this surprising news.
For readers who do not have enough background information about the Northern Territories issue between Japan and the Soviet Union/Russia, the following is what happened on Sept. 12 at the 4th Eastern Economic Forum, which Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended, in the Russian Far Eastern city of Vladivostok.
During the forum’s questions and answers session, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “An idea has just come into my head. Let’s conclude a peace treaty before the end of this year, without any preconditions.” He later stated that he was not joking, implying that the remaining issues could be resolved after Japan and Russia sign a peace treaty.
Tokyo seemed to be literally caught off guard. Abe did not respond to Putin’s public proposal on the spot. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga later said: “I don’t want to comment on what President Putin said. … However, our position of resolving the Northern Territories issue before any peace treaty remains unchanged.”
For the record, Japan’s official position is the following: The international border between Japan and Russia was determined on Feb. 7, 1855, when the two nations signed the Treaty of Commerce, Navigation and Delimitation, which confirmed the boundary between the islands of Etorofu and Uruppu.
The Northern Territories, consisting of the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets, are an inherent part of the territory of Japan, which have never been held by other countries. Those territories have been under illegal occupation by the Soviet Union, and then by Russia, since 1945.
Japan’s mainstream media seem to support this official position. After Putin made the proposal, the editorials of major daily newspapers here in Tokyo were almost unanimous in criticizing the out-of-the-blue proposition by the Russian president as something “egocentric,” “disgusting,” “perverse” and, therefore, “unacceptable.”
Nonetheless, those editorials are sharply divided on Abe’s tactics and strategy vis-a-vis Russia. The Asahi and Mainichi, for example, are critical of the optimistic view of the prime minister, who could not immediately rebut Putin’s abrupt proposal and instead only repeatedly emphasized “steady progress” in the negotiations.
The Sankei and Nikkei editorials, on the other hand, even urge the Japanese government to fully reconsider Japan-Russia relations or at least Abe’s approach of “joint economic projects on the four islands.” Only The Yomiuri remains neutral, merely asking the prime minister not to deviate from the original negotiating principles.
It’s very confusing and chaotic, isn’t it? What’s wrong with Putin’s proposal for “a peace treaty without preconditions”? For those who are not familiar with the delicate and sensitive Northern Territories issue, which has been the focus of decades of difficult and mostly fruitless negotiations, the following is my take:
First, Putin is not as impulsive as Trump. The Russian president said, “An idea has just come into my head.” That is hardly the case. He knew exactly what he was talking about. A former KGB agent would never speak on the spur of the moment. His intentional condition for the negotiations was to deny the linkage between territorial issues and a peace treaty — which he once accepted. In fact, on March 23, 2001, he and Japan’s then-prime minister agreed in the “Irkutsk Statement” to “promote future negotiations to accomplish complete normalization of Japan-Russia relations by means of concluding a peace treaty through the solution of issues concerning the attribution of the four islands.”
Second, all politics is local.
Keep in mind that the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will hold a presidential election on Thursday. Of course, Putin’s move has an impact on Tokyo’s internal politics. The varying views expressed in the editorials also reflect Japan’s domestic power struggles. It is neither more nor less than that.
Three, stop the “statute of limitations.”
Whether you like it or not, it is a painful reality that the four islands have been under the effective (but, of course, illegal) control of Russia. What Japan must do now at the very least is to prevent the statute of limitations from being completed over Russia’s usurpation with the passage of time. The best way to do that is to continue to remind the illegal occupants that their control over those islands has been and will continue to be unjust, so that the only way to end this dispute is to solve the issue of the Northern Territories before signing a peace treaty — as was agreed upon before.
Some Westerners may wonder if such a solution is possible, when the Japanese government is so inflexible that it will not sign a peace treaty without recovering all four islands.
Make no mistake. Japan’s basic principles are neither inflexible nor uncompromising. On the contrary, Japan has been very flexible. It is Tokyo’s official position that “Japan has energetically been continuing negotiations with Russia based on its basic policy of resolving the issue of the attribution (not necessarily a complete reversion) of the four Northern Islands and concluding a peace treaty with Russia.”
This does not mean that Japan has given up on the total reversion of all four islands. Tokyo is not ready to give in to Moscow, either. What I personally wish is for Russia to make a strategic decision and to reach a realistic but just and honorable solution to the Northern Territories issue, no matter how many years it may take.
Russia’s population is shrinking and China is on the rise. The Chinese living in the north of China outnumber the Russians living in the Russian Far East. Beijing may become a strategic threat to Russia someday, if not in the foreseeable future. That’s when Moscow may be forced to make a strategic geopolitical decision to improve relations with Tokyo. Japan shall wait.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at the Canon Institute for Global Studies.