Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan on June 28 will not bring the hoped-for breakthrough in the countries’ territorial dispute. Yet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can still salvage something from the wreckage of his Russia policy by agreeing to Moscow’s proposal to create a visa-free area between Hokkaido and Sakhalin, including the disputed islands. This will not see the return of the islands to Japan, but it would see the return of Japanese to the islands.
For three years, Abe has worked tirelessly to secure a resolution to Japan’s territorial dispute with Russia over the islands off the coast of Hokkaido (known in Russia as the Southern Kurils). Announced in May 2016, Japan’s “new approach” saw Abe cultivate close personal ties with Putin and offer economic incentives via an eight-point economic cooperation plan.
In November, Tokyo also conceded to basing territorial talks on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration. This is significant because the document only mentions the two smaller of the four disputed islands, thereby signaling Abe’s willingness to settle for just 7 percent of the disputed landmass.
With the groundwork complete, 2019 was to be the year for implementation. In particular, the Japanese media reported that the Abe administration was seeking to sign a framework agreement when Putin visits Japan for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka at the end of this month.
However, as Japan’s position softened, Russia’s became only more resolute. Despite four rounds of talks between the foreign ministers since the start of 2019, Russia has shown no willingness to accept a two-island deal. Instead, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insists that Japan recognize Russian sovereignty over all four islands. Putin’s chief foreign policy adviser Yury Ushakov also stated that, “This is our land and no one is going to give this land away.”
This is embarrassing for Abe, who repeatedly pledged to resolve the dispute with Russia “with his own hand.” Yet, while it raises questions about Abe’s purported strengths as a foreign policy leader, the failure is instructive for Japan.
The fact that Abe’s inducements and concessions generated no progress whatsoever demonstrates that there is nothing Japan can do to secure the return of even two islands. Quite simply, Russia will not countenance transferring territory, which it feels it justly won in World War II, to a U.S. ally that cannot adequately guarantee that the islands will never play host to U.S. military installations. Furthermore, the Japanese government’s own polling finds that only 2 percent of Russians believe that the islands should belong to Japan.
The time has therefore come for the Japanese leadership to think again. The way forward is to accept Russia’s proposal to develop a visa-free area between Hokkaido and Sakhalin. This offer was reiterated when Foreign Minister Lavrov visited Tokyo on May 31.
The visa-free system would permit residents of the neighboring regions to make short-term visits across the border for economic and other purposes. Crucially, it would also apply to the disputed islands, which are administered as part of Sakhalin.
The Japanese government is reported to be unenthusiastic about this proposal, fearing that it would imply the shelving of the dispute and might be seen by the public as an undeserved present for Russia. Yet, this is to overlook the clear advantages for Japan.
First, a Hokkaido-Sakhalin visa-free zone would vastly enhance Japanese access to the disputed islands, which has been minimal since they were seized by Soviet forces in late August 1945. Indeed, the Japanese authorities currently discourage citizens from visiting on a Russian visa. Perversely, this means that citizens of third countries, including China and Korea, have better access to the islands than the Japanese.
Changing this situation matters most to the former Japanese residents who were expelled from the islands after the war and mostly settled in Hokkaido. The visa-free zone would not grant residency rights, but this is of little significance. Few Japanese citizens, including the former islanders, whose average age is over 84, have any ambition to live on this remote, fogbound archipelago. Instead, what matters is the ability to freely visit this former homeland.
Additionally, opening up the border would bring economic benefits to communities in Hokkaido, who are interested in developing joint economic projects. This especially applies to Nemuro, which, as the closest part of Hokkaido, once formed an integrated economic unit with the now disputed islands.
Crucially, the visa-free zone would also bring political benefits. At present, the territorial dispute distorts Japanese foreign policy since Tokyo is hesitant about taking a robust approach toward Russia for fear of damaging territorial negotiations. This has prevented Japan from taking a strong stance in response to destabilizing Russian behavior, including the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and use of a nerve agent in the botched assassination of Sergei Skripal in the United Kingdom in 2018. This has caused some European countries to question Japan’s reliability as a security partner.
By prioritizing access to the islands and acknowledging that current negotiations will not lead to their return, Japan will gain a freer hand in dealing with Russia. This will enable Tokyo to make decisions about political and economic cooperation on their own merits, and not with an eye on how it will affect the territorial issue. This can also be achieved without formally abandoning Japan’s claim to sovereignty over the territory.
Russia could, of course, seek to use the threat of suspending the visa-free zone as a means of leverage. This would, however, be strongly resisted by residents of Sakhalin, who would lose their access to Hokkaido.
As with his predecessors, Abe has failed to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia. He does, however, still have the opportunity to transform Japan’s relationship with its northern neighbor. A Hokkaido-Sakhalin visa-free zone is not a stepping stone to the return of the islands. It is, however, a realistic means of restoring Japanese influence over a territory from which Japan has been isolated for almost 74 years.
James D.J. Brown is an associate professor of political science at Temple University Japan.