TOKYO -- Economic cooperation on disputed islands proposed at a Japan-Russia summit Thursday and Friday could usher in an era of warmer ties between the two neighbors. But Tokyo risks sacrificing territorial claims and upsetting allies if Moscow is allowed to take charge.
"The majority of citizens are disappointed" by the outcome of talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Russia experts worry that joint development of four disputed islands north of Hokkaido, hailed as a new approach to the territorial conflict, could lead to the Japanese government effectively recognizing Russian control over the territory without seeing its own sovereignty claims recognized in return.
Abe has distanced himself from the hard line that Tokyo need not provide economic assistance to the islands until Russia returns them. He is instead pursuing a more roundabout strategy, aiming to use economic cooperation as a steppingstone in resolving the territorial issue. But as of now, there is little prospect of a handoff of the islands to Japan -- the ultimate goal.
Time for a change
Japan and Russia have not officially signed a peace treaty in the 71 years since the end of World War II. The territorial dispute has been a persistent barrier to economic and security ties over the years.
"If we go on like this, this very same discussion will continue for yet more decades to come," Abe said in a Sept. 3 speech in the Russian Far East city of Vladivostok, addressing Putin in the audience. Bringing an end to Japan's "postwar" status during the current generation is a key goal of Abe's. Improving ties with Russia could also yield hefty economic and security benefits.
Japan faces a host of foreign policy challenges in East Asia. China is stepping up expansion moves in the South China Sea as North Korea missile and nuclear weapons development marches on. And in South Korea, the political shakeup could result in a government unfriendly to Tokyo taking power. Having Russia on Japan's side would significantly expand Japan's diplomatic options.
But such an alliance entails risk. The international landscape is looking friendlier for Russia, with a pact to cut oil output alleviating the petroleum price sag that has weighed on the country for some time. This could further embolden Putin on key diplomatic issues.
European nations and the U.S. have maintained strong sanctions against Russia over its involvement in Ukraine. But U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has shown a pro-Russia streak. Carter Page, a foreign policy adviser to Trump during his campaign, told a news conference in Moscow ahead of Putin's Japan trip that the sanctions are a blight on ties between Russia and the U.S. and Europe.
The worry is that Russia could use the eight-point economic cooperation plan Abe unveiled earlier this year to its own ends. While the prime minister intends to lay the groundwork for a solution to the territorial row, Putin is most excited by the prospect of jointly developing the Russian Far East. A source at a Japanese trading house said the company's Russia business is contingent upon a reduction in political risk accompanying improved Russo-Japanese ties.
Putin is pushing Abe to develop foreign policy independent of the U.S., the idea being that driving a wedge between Japan and its Euro-American allies could help Moscow negotiate a reduction in sanctions over Ukraine. But Japan has little choice but to rely on America's power of deterrence for its national defense and builds its foreign policy strategy around the Japan-U.S. alliance, putting the prime minister in a tough spot indeed.