WALTER HAMILTON. What’s in it for Putin?

Sep 5, 2016


Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is pursuing a ‘fresh approach’ with Russia’s Vladimir Putin for resolving the territorial dispute that has prevented the two countries signing a peace treaty since World War Two. It is easy to see what Abe might hope to gain from a settlement, but no breakthrough can be expected unless it fits in with Putin’s own calculations.

When Japan’s one-legged Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu, dressed in top hat and tails, shuffled across the deck of the USS Missouri on 2 September 1945 to sign the Instrument of Surrender, a Soviet officer stood among the Allied representatives waiting to countersign the document. By the time Japan put pen to the San Francisco Peace Treaty six years later, however, the Cold War was set hard, and the Soviet Union was not among the signatories.

The last treaty between Japan and the Soviet Union was the Non-Aggression Pact of 1941. Because it was still in force in July 1945 (Moscow had declared its intention not to renew the pact), the Japanese tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist the Soviet’s help to obtain a negotiated end to the war. Tokyo did not know that Stalin had already promised Roosevelt and Churchill to enter the war against Japan. He unleashed his forces on Manchuria following the atomic attack on Hiroshima; the Soviet landings on the Kuril Islands north of Hokkaido occurred several days after Japan had accepted the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender.

By signing the 1951 Peace Treaty, Japan renounced sovereignty over the Kurils, along with all its former imperial possessions. Tokyo, however, has claimed (on weak grounds) that this did not include several islands nearest Hokkaido among those seized by the Soviet Union. The dispute over what Japan calls its ‘Northern Territories’ has been festering ever since.

When the two countries restored diplomatic relations in 1956, it was agreed that once a peace treaty was signed the Soviet Union would return part of the Northern Territories: Shikotan and the Habomai rocks. Although this implied that the larger islands of Iturup (Etorofu) and Kunashir (Kunashiri) would remain Soviet territory, Tokyo later resiled from such an interpretation.

Meeting on 2 September (no less) on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Shinzo Abe appealed to Vladimir Putin’s ego by stressing the importance of removing the old sticking point ‘for the sake for future generations’. The meeting followed up on talks held in Sochi last May when Abe put forward an eight-point cooperation plan focusing on energy resources, industrial modernization and infrastructure development in the Russian Far East. Abe was accompanied to Vladivostok by Hiroshige Seko whose Cabinet portfolio had just been expanded to include the title of Minister for Economic Cooperation with Russia.

Settling unfinished business has been a major theme of the Abe administration. So far it has generated more talk than results: negotiations with Pyongyang aimed at producing a full accounting for Japanese kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s petered out last year without a resolution; a long-standing pledge to revise Japan’s postwar Constitution has yet to produce any draft amendments; and now comes the renewed push to settle the Northern Territories dispute.

What precisely Abe’s ‘fresh approach’ entails remains unclear. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has called it a ‘future-oriented standpoint’. Some reports say it involves reviving the 1956 formula, with economic incentives thrown in; but, given Putin’s statements, that would seem to be a non-starter.

The benefits for Abe of achieving a settlement are pretty clear. For one thing, it would set an example to China of the efficacy of a rule-of-law approach to dealing with territorial conflicts (i.e. the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute in the East China Sea). By putting Russo-Japanese relations on a new footing, he would also hope to prevent his nation being squeezed through closer Sino-Russian ties.

Japan, historically, has always preferred to have a clear set of mutual interests underpinning relations with Russia, in order to protect its northern flank (the Non-Aggression Pact was a classic example). Particularly at a time when the Russian economy is feeling the pinch from Western sanctions and low oil and gas prices, the public and private-sector money Japan is willing to inject into the development of the Russian Far East must appeal to Putin. Trade between the two countries quadrupled in value between 2006 and 2013, and many observers agree there is huge untapped potential.

The risk for Abe is being made to look foolish. Other world leaders such as George W. Bush and Tony Blair started out believing Putin was someone they could deal with, only to be sadly disillusioned. By playing along with Abe, Putin could show the one-bitten-twice-shy Europeans and Americans that he’s not just a territory snatcher (as in Crimea and eastern Ukraine), while pushing any genuine concessions out to the never-never.

Interviewed by Bloomberg the day before his Vladivostok meeting, Putin gave a non-committal response to a question on the territorial dispute. He referred vaguely to ‘a solution where neither of the parties would feel defeated or a loser’; but, with an eye on domestic opinion, he insisted that Russia would never ‘trade’ territory. By implication, Japan would need to decouple its economic sweeteners from the territorial issue: in other words, pay up front with no guarantee of return. (He was, in fact, reiterating Moscow’s long-standing position.)

Putin originally was scheduled to visit Japan in 2014, until the invasion of Crimea intervened. Japan continues to take part in international sanctions against Russia (reaffirmed as recently as the G-7 Summit in June), even though Abe’s overtures to Putin amount to a significant ‘rehabilitation’ of the Russian leader––which, of course, he hopes will be appreciated.

Bilateral relations have always been highly complex and multi-stranded, and nothing has changed. Abe, for instance, could hardly offer a softer line on Russia’s annexation of Crimea without sending precisely the wrong signal to China; similarly, the peace treaty talks are going on despite recent Russian moves to further militarize the Kuril Islands. Diplomats sometimes need to have tunnel vision not to see the uncomfortable reality that surrounds them.

The two men will resume discussions on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Peru in mid-November, ahead a rescheduled visit by Putin to Japan in mid-December. Abe will host the Russian leader in Yamaguchi, the prime minister’s home prefecture, in a Cape David-like arrangement the Japanese seem to be preparing for ‘breakthrough’ talks. Abe certainly appeared upbeat after his latest meeting with Putin. Even so, he would do to remember the old saying: ‘There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.’

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years.




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