WASHINGTON – On Nov. 14, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Singapore on the sideline of the East Asian Summit. Following the meeting, he announced that the two leaders had agreed to accelerate talks on concluding a peace treaty that would be based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration.
Following the prime minister’s announcement, Foreign Minister Taro Kono met with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov on Nov. 23 and agreed to support the leaders-level effort to accelerate bilateral negotiations for the peace treaty. The two foreign ministers also agreed to arrange a meeting between Abe and Putin when both leaders visit Argentina this weekend to attend the Group of 20 summit.
This could signal a dramatic change of position on the part of Abe, who, despite his effort to extend an olive branch to Putin, including inviting him to his hometown in Yamaguchi Prefecture in December 2016, had been steadfast in maintaining the position of his predecessors — that the Northern Territories issue would have to be addressed prior to Japan concluding a peace treaty with Russia.
In fact, after Putin suggested that the two countries accelerate peace treaty negotiations “without preconditions” with an eye toward concluding them “before the end of the year” at the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum in September, Abe later indicated to Russia that he would not be able to accept Putin’s offer given the prime minister’s own position on the issue.
Several factors could have driven Abe to suggest this potentially significant change in Japan’s position. First and foremost is his deep personal aspiration to lead Japan beyond the legacies of World War II. After all, Russia is the only country that Japan fought in World War II that has not yet concluded a peace treaty. While Japan normalized diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union by signing the joint declaration in 1956, a conclusion of a peace treaty with Moscow would carry considerable symbolic significance and progress toward making a clear departure from the legacies of World War II. Such an achievement would not only be a major juncture for Japanese foreign policy, but also create a lasting personal legacy for Abe.
Second, the reality of the Northern Territories may be sinking in with the public, which in turn may have resulted in the evolution of expectations of how a settlement of the issue would look. These islands have been under Soviet/Russian administrative control since 1945. Over the years there have been several focused efforts to reassert Japanese sovereignty over these islands by Abe’s predecessors. Such efforts have included ones by Ichiro Hatoyama (grandfather of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama) in the 1950s during the effort that eventually culminated in Tokyo and Moscow signing the 1956 joint declaration; Kakuei Tanaka in the late 1970s; Morihiro Hosokawa in the early 1990s; Ryutaro Hashimoto in the mid- to late-1990s; and Yoshiro Mori in 2000.
However, none of these efforts have led to a breakthrough in Japan-Soviet/Russia relations because of Tokyo’s firm position that it would not engage in any discussion on a peace treaty until the Northern Territories issue was “resolved,” a term that was defined as the return of all four islands. However, a recent public opinion poll indicated that over 60 percent of the respondents thought that the Northern Territories issues “cannot be resolved.” The poll result suggests that the public may have more realistic expectations of whether the Northern Territories issue can really be resolved in the way in which Tokyo has insisted. Such public sentiment could provide Abe with a degree of flexibility that his predecessors did not have as he continues his talks with Putin.
Finally, Abe may be driven by a sense of necessity for Japan to reach out to Russia as the China-Russia relationship has greatly deepened in recent years. Tokyo has certainly noticed that Sino-Russian relations are growing closer, as manifested by an increase in joint military exercises.
In particular, Japan has been wary of Moscow and Beijing choosing to conduct these exercises in areas close to the East China Sea and the Northern Territories — a trend that has emerged in the last several years, with the two countries holding massive joint military exercises this past September in Siberia and in waters off Russia’s east coast. As Abe continues his effort to mend Japan’s ties with China, he have also felt a need to yet again reach out to Russia to prevent Beijing and Moscow from getting too close.
Abe’s decision, however, came at an awkward time when Europe as well as the United States are growing more critical of Russia’s behavior not only in Europe but also in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. A recent rise in tensions between Russia and Ukraine over naval clashes in the Azov Sea near Crimea will only serve to increase Western criticism of Russia.
In the anticipated meeting with Putin this weekend, Abe needs to tread carefully between maintaining Japan’s own diplomatic momentum with Russia while not appearing too eager to make a deal with Moscow by appearing acquiescent about its international behavior elsewhere.
Yuki Tatsumi is co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington. She is also a senior fellow at Canon Institute for Global Studies in Tokyo.