Can Abe Make the Northern Territories Issue His Diplomatic Legacy?

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By Jeremy Fuller:

Though World War II ended over 70 years ago, Japan and Russia have yet to sign a peace treaty. Standing in the way of negotiations is a long-running territorial dispute over four of the southern Kuril Islands, referred to in Japan as the Northern Territories. Progress towards resolving this standoff has been virtually nonexistent for decades, but Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is determined to find a breakthrough.

Abe has worked hard to cultivate a good relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, meeting with him several times as prime minister, even against the wishes of the United States, which has sought to isolate Russia following its invasion of Crimea and incursion into Ukrainian territory. Putin has not visited Japan since 2005, but that will change this December, when the Russian leader is scheduled to visit Abe’s hometown in Yamaguchi Prefecture.

Under Abe’s direction, the Japanese government has started preparing a package of initiatives to encourage economic cooperation with Russia, but at the same time, the prime minister has reiterated Japan’s claim to all four islands. He did so to counter speculation that his administration would change policy, after his advisor and former Diet member Muneo Suzuki and the director of the Liberal Democratic Party’s foreign affairs division, Masashi Adachi, expressed support for a two-island solution in which Russia returns the Habomai Islets and Shikotan Island while keeping the question of the remaining two islands open.

A two-island posture would significantly improve the odds of successful negotiations, however, because it builds on historical precedent. In a 1956 Joint Declaration normalizing diplomatic relations with Japan and ending the state of war between the two nations, the then-USSR agreed to return Habomai and Shikotan to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty. The Soviet Union later reneged on this proposal in response to the 1960 amendments to the U.S.-Japan security treaty, but Putin has said that he will abide by the terms of the 1956 agreement.

It is unlikely that Japan has the leverage to get a better deal. In the past, Japanese diplomats endeavored to use economic incentives to encourage Russia to turn over the four islands, and there are still those in Japan who advocate this tactic. But it has no record of success and has grown decreasingly feasible, due to the narrowing of the gap between Japan and Russia’s GDP and Russia’s growing economic connections to China.

Lingering historical grievances have motivated this territorial stalemate. Many in Japan view the USSR’s 1945 invasion of the islands, in violation of their 1941 Neutrality Pact, as an act of betrayal and opportunistic land grab. On the other side, Russians are loath to see a further erosion of their territory in the post-Soviet era, especially since the islands are largely inhabited by a population of around 17,000 Russian citizens today.

These obstacles remain, but Abe and Putin are focused on putting the diplomatic failures of the past behind them in order to realize geopolitical and economic benefits in the present. Putin stands to gain from warmer relations, as an increase in Japanese investment could aid his government’s goal of developing Russia’s Far East and orientating the country towards Asia.  However, Putin has cautioned that Russia does not “trade in territories,” and that, while he wants to find a solution that both parties will find agreeable, he is not willing to sell islands. This does not necessarily contradict the 1956 agreement, but it does suggest that Japan will need greater incentives than theoretical private sector investment to get Putin to cede territory.

For his part, Abe has consistently pursued stronger ties with Russia, in spite of U.S. pressure not to conduct “business as usual” with Putin’s regime. With a stronger Russo-Japanese relationship, Abe hopes to bolster Japan’s regional standing and prevent the formation of a hostile Russia-China block. And like Russia, Japan could enjoy material gains from a treaty, in the form of greater access to Russian oil and liquid natural gas (LNG). In the aftermath of the 2011 Fukushima meltdown, distrust of nuclear power has increased Japan’s reliance on the Middle East for energy, and it currently imports about 80 percent of its crude oil and 30 percent of LNG from the region.

Abe does not miss the symbolic value of resolving the dispute either. As prime minister, he has sought to end Japan’s “post-war” mindset and re-establish the country as a normal power.  Closing the book on perhaps the most visible connection to the war would be tangible progress towards that end. Achieving a foreign policy success long desired by past prime ministers will naturally come with reputational benefits as well.

Abe will need to tread carefully, however. The consequences of skirting U.S. disapproval will increase as U.S.-Russian relations further deteriorate. The United States and its European allies are considering hitting Russia with additional sanctions to condemn attacks on Aleppo that have drawn civilian casualties, and earlier this month, the White House formally accused Russia of hacking the servers of the Democratic National Convention. The next U.S. administration could be even tougher on Russia, particularly if Secretary Clinton is elected: she has long advocated imposing a no-fly zone in Syria and has repeatedly accused her opponent, Donald Trump, of being too soft on Putin.

The U.S.-Japan alliance remains a cornerstone of Japanese foreign policy, so Abe will have to find a way to make the case that rapprochement with Russia will not harm American interests. Resolution of the Northern Territories dispute, taken by itself, would be welcomed by the United States. If Japan can settle the dispute without committing to substantial economic engagement with Russia, it can avoid the risk of undermining future sanctions and clashing with the West. Peaceful resolution of a sovereignty dispute would also set a good model for the East and South China Seas, but a more extensive political and economic embrace of Russia, which faces condemnation for its invasions of Crimea and Ukraine, could weaken the credibility of Japan’s opposition to the assertion of sovereignty through force in Asia.

If Abe’s government is serious about making progress on relations with Russia, it will need to find a creative way to diverge from the status quo. There is room to maneuver: a 2013 poll found that only 29 percent of the Japanese public supports the government’s current posture, with 67 percent favoring more compromise.[i] Momentum is building for reconciliation that can herald strategic shifts for both Japan and Russia. It remains to be seen exactly how Abe will change the equation in this intractable dispute while maintaining U.S. confidence, but December is a unique opportunity. The summit will either join a long line of fruitless diplomatic efforts or be an important step towards ending a bitter legacy of World War II. 

Jeremy Fuller is an intern with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center. 

[i] James D.J. Brown, Japan, Russia and their Territorial Dispute : The Northern Delusion (Taylor and Francis, 2016), 87.

Photo credit: NASA 
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