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The end of the Northern Territories illusion

Despite the pain, Japan should put claims on back burner and adopt realistic Russia policy

| Japan
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe left Moscow empty-handed once again.   © Kyodo

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proclaimed that 2019 would be a "turning point" in Japan-Russia relations. His hope was that a new negotiating framework, which was agreed at the end of 2018, would deliver a breakthrough in the countries' long-standing dispute over the Russian-held Southern Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territories).

Yet, Abe's 25th meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 22 January did not prove the milestone he had been hoping for. As the Japanese leader left Moscow empty-handed once again, it became clear that Abe's efforts to secure a territorial deal with Russia have conclusively failed.

This is a serious personal setback for Abe. But Japan could benefit from the end of the illusion about this territorial dispute over four islands seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II.

The Tokyo political establishment has long held that the territorial problem with Moscow could be resolved if only the time was right, circumstances were appropriate, and the Japanese leadership exerted sufficient effort.

Analysts suggested that "windows of opportunity" for recovering the lost territory existed in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Russian economy was in dire straits and Japanese aid seemed capable of being used to prize a deal out of Moscow.

The belief in these missed opportunities has motivated Japanese leaders to keep chasing a territorial agreement, even as Russia grew richer and more assertive under Putin.

Abe's efforts, however, have tested this idea to destruction. While other Japanese prime ministers found that their attempts to achieve a breakthrough were curtailed by domestic or international factors, Abe has been unusually free to pursue his goal of securing a deal before the end of his time in office.

Since returning to power in December 2012, Abe has had more than six years to negotiate with Putin. He has been blessed by weak domestic opposition. Moreover, the U.S. has not interfered. Had Hillary Clinton, a known Russia hawk, been elected U.S. president in 2016, Abe might have found himself under pressure to stop negotiating. Such a demand is, however, unlikely to come from President Donald Trump.

Lastly, after Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Tokyo analysts argued that Moscow might be more open to a territorial deal to reduce its international isolation and consequent overdependence on China.

Sensing that conditions were in his favor, Abe has been tireless in his efforts to secure a breakthrough. This also has personal significance for Abe since his late father, who served as foreign minister in the 1980s, made normalizing relations with Moscow his life's work. On visiting his father's grave on 6 Jan., Abe said, "I vowed, no matter what, to move forward with the Northern Territories and peace treaty issues and to continue to make every effort to put an end to these problems."

These efforts have included cultivating personal ties with Putin, whom the Japanese leader has publicly described as someone who is "dear to me as a partner." Abe has also promoted economic cooperation with Russia with an eight-point plan supervised by a cabinet minister.

After the annexation of Crimea, Japan did feel an obligation to join the U.S. and the EU in imposing sanctions on Russia, but the Abe government carefully kept them as weak as possible.

Last year, Japan was the only G-7 member not to expel any Russian diplomats after the Sergei Skripal case, when Russian agents botched an assassination attempt in the U.K. using a nerve agent. Furthermore, the Abe administration has demonstrated its distance from Western policy by welcoming to Japan Russian officials subject to U.S. and EU sanctions.

When it comes to the territorial dispute itself, Abe has done everything Russia could expect of him, all in the hope of getting a deal and finally concluding a Second World War peace treaty.

During his November meeting with Putin in Singapore, Abe agreed to accelerate peace treaty talks based on a key document, the 1956 Joint Declaration. This includes a Russian commitment to transfer the smaller islands of Shikotan and Habomai to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty, but it makes no mention of the larger islands of Iturup and Kunashir.

Offering to base talks on the declaration therefore signaled Abe's willingness to settle for a two-island deal, thereby giving up 93% of the disputed land area. Abe also reportedly promised Putin that he would not permit U.S. bases on Shikotan or Habomai if those islands were transferred.

Abe sent a signal of his willingness to settle for a two-island deal. (maps4media/Getty Images)

So, Abe's fixation on delivering a territorial deal has distorted Japan's foreign policy and created distance from Western partners.

But no amount of bending over backward seems to have secured any flexibility from Moscow. This was made clear just before the Jan. 22 summit when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov affirmed that Russia and Japan were still far from being international partners and demanded that Japan recognize Russian sovereignty over all the Southern Kurils. Putin's chief foreign policy aide Yury Ushakov added: "This is our land, and no one intends to give this land away."

It was then no surprise that the summit proved a flop, achieving only an agreement for the foreign ministers to meet again in February.

This experience has been painful for Abe, yet could be helpful for Japan as a whole. It has demonstrated conclusively that Russia has no intention of giving up the Southern Kurils and that no amount of accommodation will help. This realization should be liberating for Japan, permitting future leaders to formulate policy toward Moscow without fear of its effect on territorial talks.

This does not mean abandoning all engagement with Russia. Rather, Japan should continue political, economic, and security cooperation, but this should be pursued to the extent that it has genuine value and not to try to incentivize territorial concessions. In this way, Japan can move beyond the fawning attitude that characterizes Abe's approach to Russia and can adopt more robust policies toward its neighbor when necessary.

Japan does not need to renounce its legal claim to the disputed islands and can leave open the idea of one day concluding a peace treaty. It must, however, give up the misguided hope that a favorable deal is within reach. Liberated from this illusion, Japan will be able to engage with Russia with a freer hand.

James D.J. Brown is an associate professor in political science at Temple University in Tokyo and a specialist on Russo-Japanese relations.

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