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Time for Abe to come clean on territorial dispute with Russia

Japan's leader should explain why he quietly shelved decades-old demands

| Japan
Putin, left, meets Abe on June 28 in Osaka: conspicuously absent from the summit was any progress on the territorial issues.   © Reuters

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 29 confirmed that the Japanese government has effectively shelved plans to secure the return of the Russian-held Southern Kurils, which Tokyo claims as its Northern Territories.

However, Abe is being less than honest about his intentions. Instead of owning up the policy shift, the Abe administration persists with the fiction that it is still actively pursuing the return of these disputed islands. The government should set aside its inclination to secrecy, clearly state its aims to the Japanese public and welcome the scrutiny that is the core of parliamentary democracy.

By many standards, Abe's talks with Putin at the G-20 summit in Osaka were a success. Most eye-catching was the announcement that Japan's Mitsui & Co. and the state-controlled Japan Oil, Gas and Metals National Corp. will take a 10% stake in Russia's huge Arctic LNG-2 natural gas project. Worth $3 billion, this is the largest Japanese investment in Russia in many years.

Other agreements were reached in the areas of tourism, the digital economy, and energy efficiency, and Japan agreed to ease visa requirements for Russian entrepreneurs from September.

The sides also announced their intention to hold a Year of Japan-Russia Inter-Regional and sister-city exchanges from 2020, which follows the just-concluded Year of Japan-Russia. Putin naturally invited Abe to Vladivostok's Eastern Economic Forum in September, the Japanese leader's fourth successive visit to this event.

Arctic LNG-2 is the largest Japanese investment in Russia in many years. (An illustration of the planned project)   © Novatek

These results speak to the positive dynamic that has characterized bilateral relations since Abe returned to power in December 2012. Yet conspicuously absent from the summit was any progress on the territorial and peace treaty issues.

This is significant because not only have these issues been at the heart of Japan's approach to Moscow for decades, but also because Abe has frequently affirmed his commitment to resolving this dispute with his own hand. It forms part of the prime minister's claim to be a statesman, capable of settling long-standing diplomatic problems and giving Japan more weight in the world.

The truth is that the Abe government has now conclusively set aside for the foreseeable future the objective of achieving the return of these islands, which were seized by Soviet forces after the announcement of Japan's surrender at the end of World War II. This was indicated by the Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Bluebook of April 2019, which omitted previous language asserting that "the four northern islands belong to Japan." The Abe cabinet has also decided to refrain from describing the islands as "inherent territory" and under "illegal occupation," both terms that were once widely used.

Rather than prioritizing resolution of the territorial dispute, the Abe administration's policy is to deliver a broad-based improvement in Japan-Russia relations, including close engagement between the political elites, dynamic economic relations, and warmer people-to-people ties. This dovish approach is at odds with Abe's image as a nationalist with hard line views on historical issues.

Regarding the islands themselves, instead of persisting with demands for their return, Abe's goal is to maximize access for Japanese citizens, especially former residents who were expelled after the Soviet occupation. This is to be achieved by means of joint economic projects, which have been under discussion since December 2016, when Putin last visited Japan.

Progress toward implementing these joint projects has not been smooth due to differences over legal issues and the framework to permit visa-free access to the islands for Japanese citizens. Nonetheless, it was announced in Osaka that business models have been agreed in the areas of tourism and waste management, and that pilot projects will begin in the autumn.

Abe's major change of heart is not without reason. All previous efforts to resolve the dispute have failed and it is apparent that Russia has no intention to transfer even the two smaller of the four disputed islands, as stipulated in the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956.

A statue of Vladimir Lenin in Kunashir: it is apparent that Russia has no intention to transfer the four disputed islands.   © Reuters

The Abe government can also claim that it makes strategic sense to improve relations with Japan's northern neighbor at a time when the country feels threatened by China and North Korea, and endures wretched relations with South Korea. This argument is only strengthened by President Donald Trump's destabilization of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty.

The main problem, therefore, is not the policy itself, but the government's refusal to be straight with the public about its intentions. Instead of explaining its reasoning and noting that the policy does not require formal abandonment of Japan's claims to sovereignty, the Abe administration maintains the pretense that its stance toward the islands remains unchanged. Ahead of the upper-house elections on July 21, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party has even included the description of the islands as "inherent territory" in its policy pledges, even though the government no longer uses this term.

The reluctance to be candid about this issue is consistent with the Abe administration's wider efforts to minimize public scrutiny. This was demonstrated most strikingly by the government's refusal to convene Budget Committee meetings during the last Diet session. Since any topic can be raised in this committee, the opposition was deprived of an important forum in which to hold ministers to account.

A similar tendency characterizes the government's engagement with the media. Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, who serves as the government's chief spokesman, is known as the "iron wall" for his terse, scripted responses to journalists' questions.

Foreign Minister Taro Kono likes to give the impression of greater accessibility by engaging in banter with citizens on social media. However, these light-hearted exchanges often focus on the minister's appearance and food preferences; he avoids serious engagement on policy issues. In December 2018, when journalists demanded clarity on Russia policy, he declined to answer, saying four times "Next question, please."

In a parliamentary democracy government policies should be tested in the fire of public scrutiny so that political parties can articulate contrasting policy positions. In the forthcoming election campaign, the ruling party should clearly explain that it is setting aside the unrealistic goal of securing the islands' rapid return and instead prioritizing more stable relations with Russia and increased access to the disputed territory. It will then be up to the voters to express their verdict.

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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