Improving Japan-Russia Ties

Commentary | May 04, 2016

Japan could benefit greatly from a comprehensive renewal of ties with Russia by focusing engagement primarily on economic and soft-security issues, writes J. Berkshire Miller, EWI's Fellow for the China, East Asia and United States (CEAUS) Program. Co-authored with Bloomberg's Aiko Shimizu, the comments are published in Nikkei Asian Review.

On May 7, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will touch down in Sochi, Russia for an unofficial summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Abe has ambitious plans to push Putin to make concessions on their countries' decades-old dispute over the southernmost Kurile Islands, which Japan calls the Northern Territories. The four disputed islands-called Kunashiri, Etorofu, Habomai and Shikotan in Japanese-have been under Russian administration since their seizure from Japan at the end of World War II.

Abe has staked a considerable amount of political capital on his engagement with Russia, and has met with Putin more than a dozen times since assuming office in late 2012. But Moscow's decision to annex Crimea in 2014, and its continued support of rebels in eastern Ukraine, complicates Abe's approach. His administration is conflicted by its desire to improve ties with Russia, on the one hand, and to stand firm with the Group of Seven advanced economies-and especially with its closest ally in Washington-on the other.

These strains were evident in last month's G7 foreign minister's communique, which included, at Japan's request, a reference to the importance of maintaining dialogue with Russia. U.S. President Barack Obama cautioned Abe against traveling to Russia, stressing that such a visit would be seized upon by the Kremlin as a sign that Russia's isolation from the West was eroding.

Through Abe's diplomatic overtures to Russia, there was some hope that Japan and Russia might finally be able to resolve their territorial dispute and sign a peace treaty to conclude their World War II hostilities. But ties have soured precipitously because of Japan's imposition of sanctions against Russia for its role in Ukraine. Tokyo has also found it difficult to maintain diplomatic breathing room to engage Russia due to Moscow's isolation.

Abe's decision to push forward his trip to Russia is a clear sign that his administration does not want to squander the opportunity to resolve the rift with Moscow. But in order for Tokyo and Moscow to make measurable progress on the territorial dispute and the conclusion of a peace treaty, the two sides need to agree on a number of tangible actions over the coming year to elevate their ad-hoc consultations to a formal results-based relationship.

Creating this framework would add risk for the Abe administration as it tries to reconcile its negotiations alongside its partnership with the U.S. Despite this, Japan could benefit greatly from a comprehensive renewal of ties with Russia, and mitigate criticism from Washington, by focusing engagement primarily on economic and soft-security issues.

First, on the territorial dispute, Abe should push Putin to agree to high-level biannual consultations between foreign ministers focused specifically on measuring progress toward a resolution. Abe and Putin should further agree that a recommended approach will be formally proposed to both sides-through these consultations-no later than early 2018.

To achieve a realistic action plan, both sides will need to compromise on their polarizing stances and agree that the foreign minister consultations are intended to produce a mutually acceptable compromise. Bound into these negotiations would be a parallel commitment to conclude a bilateral peace treaty once the consultations end.

Second, Tokyo and Moscow should establish a framework for stronger energy relations-headlined by the creation of an annual energy dialogue held at the energy minister level. Bilateral energy consultations were established in 2008 after an agreement between Putin and former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. These engagements have lagged over the years, however, due to renewed tensions over the southernmost Kurils and a lack of drive in both capitals.

Through these new dialogues, Tokyo and Moscow should look at alternatives for bridging both countries' concerns. The southernmost Kurils are believed to hold vast amounts of minerals and hydrocarbons, including gold, silver, titanium, iron ore, rare earth minerals, oil and gas. For Japan, a country that lacks significant natural resources, these islands and the waters around them are particularly valuable. One way forward would be joint infrastructure development of renewable sources such as wind and solar power in the southernmost Kurils and eastern Siberia, in Russia's Far East.

Japan and Russia have already collaborated on this front. Earlier this year, the Russian state-owned power company RAO Energy Systems and the Japanese companies Mitsui, Komaihaltec and Fuji Electronic cooperated on a pilot project involving wind power and a smart-grid system in Ust-Kamchatsk in the Russian Far East.

Although this project was developed in a non-disputed area, the model may serve well for disputed regions such as the southernmost Kurils because renewable sources like wind and solar are not in limited supply, unlike hydrocarbons. In this sense, such joint development in the southernmost Kurils would be mutually beneficial-it would provide energy and economic security for both countries while avoiding contentious issues of ownership.

Third, Russia and Japan should expand their cooperation in maritime resource management, especially with regard to fisheries. The two sides inked a bilateral fisheries agreement in 1998 that allowed Japanese fishermen to engage in fishing operations around the disputed islands. The agreement is a model example of resource sharing, but enhancements are needed. For example, Japan and Russia need to work more closely to mitigate illegal fishing activities in the area and reduce fish smuggling. The two sides should also focus efforts on a joint plan to ensure that biodiversity in the maritime area surrounding the islands is preserved.

Fourth, Moscow and Japan should enhance cooperation on non-traditional security issues such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, maritime search and rescue and counter-piracy activities. The two countries have staged joint SAR drills before, and this could be a useful area to bolster cooperation, especially taking into account their joint fisheries agreement.

Fifth, Japan should seize on the timing of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to work together with Russia on security for major events, critical infrastructure and borders. Russia has recent and significant experience in this regard following its hosting of the Sochi Olympics in 2014 and its plans to host the soccer World Cup in 2018. Both sides should share best practices and coordinate their respective bureaucracies.

Finally, despite its isolation from other G7 members on this issue, Japan should look at targeted ways to engage with Russia in other regional forums such as the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation grouping, the Regional Forum run by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the East Asia Summit. Tokyo and Moscow should also look to coordinate more closely on targeted regional security issues where they share common goals, such as the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, human trafficking, counterterrorism and curbing the smuggling of narcotics.

Improved ties between Japan and Russia will take sustained effort and resilience. Indeed, resolving the dispute over the southernmost Kurils will be especially challenging since approximately 30,000 Russians reside there. Moreover, unilateral actions such as the Russian approval of a $1.2 billion plan to develop the entire island chain to improve military, transportation, and energy infrastructure serve to reignite tensions with Japan.

Despite this, there are tangible benefits for both Moscow and Tokyo if they can overcome the rift and work towards a comprehensive partnership focusing on energy cooperation, joint work on security and stronger collaboration on regional issues. The road ahead will not be easy, but it is important for leaders on both sides to overcome the urge to pander to nationalist influences at home and to take courageous moves to push the relationship forward.

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