Commentary / Japan

Five reasons to take Putin’s treaty suggestion seriously

by Masamichi Hanabusa

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seemingly offhand suggestion to conclude a Japan-Russia peace treaty without any preconditions by the end of this year seems to have met overwhelming opposition or, at best, skepticism in Japan. I, however, feel his suggestion is worth serious consideration. This, of course, is on the assumption that the Habomai islets and Shikotan Island would be returned to Japan upon the conclusion of a peace treaty.

The following are my five reasons for taking his suggestion seriously.

First, in all candor and braving criticism, I venture to say that this territorial issue has in fact become a matter of “face” for Japan, which is anxious not to lose the legal position it has maintained to the present. Is Putin’s suggestion designed to make Japan give up its irredentism legally through the conclusion of a peace treaty?

As a litmus test to gauge Putin’s intention, I wish to propose a possible Japanese response: Include a clause in the peace treaty stipulating that the final status of the islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu should be decided in a referendum by the inhabitants after, say, 50 or 100 years, and that in the case the two governments fail to agree on the holding of such a referendum, the clause shall be automatically renewed.

The normalization of relations between Japan and Russia based on this compromise would usher in a better economic and political relationship, since apart from this territorial issue no serious conflict of national interests exists between the two countries. It would also be politically significant as rapprochement between Japan and Russia might put a brake on a further deepening of the Russia-China partnership.

Second, the present situation in the two islands seems to resemble that of Japan’s marginalized remote islands, exacerbated by their cold and harsh climatic conditions. How would a rational economic development of the islands be conceivable? Given that Japan itself is facing an increasing tight labor shortage due to its declining birth rate, would many Japanese be interested in moving to these islands to try to engage in viable economic activities? On the Japanese side, these questions should be considered a little more realistically and judiciously.

Third, I cannot agree with the view that the conclusion of a peace treaty would deprive Japan of whatever little negotiating leverage it would have regarding the return of these islands. It must be pointed out, in this connection, that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe changed the government’s negotiation tack from the traditional insistence of Japan’s righteous legal position to one seeking the return of the islands through the betterment of bilateral relations following the conclusion of a peace treaty.

In my view, Abe’s move reflected the realistic realization on the Japanese side that its sole leverage of refusing to conclude a peace treaty in the absence of the return of the islands did not bring about a change in the Soviet/Russian position. If Putin were to regard the conclusion of a peace treaty as “the objective fully achieved,” I would say that there never existed from the beginning any concrete basis for good Japan-Russia relations. As Russia needs to shift its gravity from Europe to Asia, such a stance, which would negate the possible benefits accruing from mutually beneficial Japan-Russia relations, would not be in the interest of Russia.

Fourth, Russia keenly desires Japan’s active participation in the development of the Northern Territories and Siberia. It would be more realistic to expect that once Japan plays the card of signing a peace treaty, the Russian side must come up with more attractive conditions to woo a reluctant Japanese business community.

Fifth, if Japan’s relations with Russia become stabilized due to the conclusion of a peace treaty, Japan may become more dynamically involved with the economic activities in these islands, which could mean more Japanese moving into these islands and the present inhabitants of the islands becoming more favorably disposed toward Japan. The new situation may bring about a change in the composition of the islands’ inhabitants over a long span of time like 50 or 100 years in the future, which in turn may affect their preference regarding the islands’ future.

Abe and Putin, who have built a good personal rapport, are sure to remain in power for a few more years to come. If they fail to conclude a peace treaty because of domestic opposition, Japan and Russia will be disappointing themselves as two nations incapable of conceiving a grand future design together. I hope Putin will be willing to accept a compromise formula that can save Japan’s face. In the same vein, I earnestly hope that the Japanese people will overcome their emotional revulsion of Russia and dispassionately see the balance of interests, as stated above.

Masamichi Hanabusa, a former ambassador to Italy, is emeritus chairman of the English-Speaking Union of Japan. An earlier version of this article first appeared on the ESUJ’s website.