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International relations

Japan and Russia seek end to island dispute in China's shadow

Beijing's growing influence pushes Tokyo and Moscow to seek strategic cooperation

Negotiations between Russia and Japan over the disputed islands will kick off in 2019.

TOKYO -- Momentum is growing for Japan and Russia to put aside their decades-old territorial dispute, as the two countries seek to strengthen strategic cooperation partly to counter the growing influence of China.

Soviet forces seized the four islands off the coast of Hokkaido at the end of World War II, which Japan claim as its Northern Territories. Experts say that it is in the interest of Tokyo and Moscow to overcome the territorial dispute and establish a "normal relationship," a move that could tip Asia's geopolitical balance in their favor.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is earnest about ending the dispute. He is committed to settling the row and signing a bilateral peace treaty within his remaining term of about three years, according to his close aides.

"The premier's resolve for the settlement is very strong," one of them said. "It's not a pursuit of fame or credit but close to a sense of mission."

It is indeed a mission for Abe. He is already the longest-serving prime minister in Japan and he has little reason to shake his legacy by pursuing the end to the Northern Territories dispute, as any negotiation could result in some capitulation by Tokyo. In fact, it would be almost tantamount to Japan abandoning its policy of seeking the return of all four islands -- Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islands.

Abe's vision is to seek the return of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan and continue negotiations for Etorofu and Kunashiri -- a move that could dent his popularity but one to which his aides say he is committed.

Russia may have different ideas. President Vladimir Putin said on Nov. 15 that the joint declaration signed by Japan and the Soviet Union in 1956 neither mentions a basis for returning Habomai and Shikotan nor clarifies which country has sovereignty over the islands. His comments imply that it is not certain that Moscow intends to return even the two small islands to Japanese rule.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov added on radio on Dec. 17 that Japan's admission of Russian sovereignty over the four disputed islands forms the basic premise from which both countries can start negotiations.

The Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu islands off the coast of Hokkaido has remained a thorn in Japan-Russia relations for decades.   © Getty/Kyodo

Putin has few incentives for making concessions to Japan, experts on Russian diplomacy said. Public support for Putin's administration plunged from more than 80% in March to around 60% following its announcement in June of a hike in the pension eligibility age. Putin, who has sought to maintain popularity by fomenting patriotic sentiments, cannot afford to make a concession over the territorial dispute as he does not want to provoke further public criticism.

Yet, Russia faces a conundrum. It would want to remove the wedge in its relationship with Japan as China's power is growing in the region. In the long run, Russian wants to expand economic ties with Japan to reduce its economic reliance on China.

Russia is also seen growing nervous about China's military buildup. Moscow sees Japan as a useful ally to keep a check on Beijing. A high-ranking Russian military official told a Japanese government official that the two countries should increase mutual cooperation in security by taking geopolitical factors into account. The Russian official was thought to have made those comments with China in mind.

If Abe drops Japan's long-held goal of achieving the simultaneous return of the four islands to pursue closer ties with Russia, it will be a godsend for Putin as Moscow may be able to settle the dispute with few concessions. The ball will be in Moscow's court and Putin will be able to turn the narrative around so that he seems like the victor.

Putin could be amenable to ending negotiations with Japan after the handover of Habomai and Shikotan and concluding a bilateral peace treaty, experts said. As the combined area of Habomai and Shikotan equals only 7% of the four islands' total, the Russian government is more likely to win public support for the plan, they added.

In addition, Russia wants to use the settlement of the territorial dispute to drive a wedge between Japan and the U.S. As a condition for the return of Habomai and Shikotan, Russian wants Japan to pledge not to allow any U.S. military bases to be constructed on the islands after the handover.

According to Japanese government officials, Nikolai Patrushev, an aide to Putin and secretary of the country's Security Council, urged Japan to promise not to have U.S. military forces stationed on the two islands when he visited Japan in early October.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu also made a similar demand of Katsutoshi Kawano when the top official in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces visited Russia in October, Japanese government officials said.

Abe has two reasons to bring the negotiations to an early conclusion despite the Russian demand, said foreign and security officials of the Japanese government.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed on Nov. 14 to work toward a post-World War II peace treaty based on a 1956 Japan-USSR joint declaration.   © Reuters

According to foreign and security officials, the first reason is that Abe thinks that with the passage of time, Japan will be put at a disadvantage.

The four islands in question have been under Russia's control for more than 70 years. During that period, many Russians have settled there, while the government has also developed the islands' infrastructure and militarized them.

Abe's thinking is that Russia will have less reason over time to return even one island, let alone two. In other words, Abe wants to cut his losses by resolving the dispute now.

The second reason, according to the officials, is the possibility of a strategic cooperation between Japan and Russia with China in mind. Russia knows that China, which has become stronger and more influential, is a potential threat, although it does not officially acknowledge that.

Once the territorial dispute is resolved, Japan and Russia can move on to deepen bilateral cooperation in foreign policy and security. Together, they will be able to counter any potential threat from China.

"I am convinced, and this conviction is shared by Prime Minister Abe, that the current state of affairs is abnormal," Putin said in his annual news conference in Moscow on Thursday. "Both Japan and Russia are interested in mending our relations, and not only because we need something from Japan from the economic standpoint."

Japan and Russia have already widened security dialogues in recent years. The "two-plus-two" meeting of foreign and defense ministers has already been held three times and bilateral visits by top officers are also increasing.

Japan and Russia also held ministerial-level talks in Tokyo on Dec. 18 to discuss economic cooperation in Russia's Far East and elsewhere. The two countries are also poised to explore cooperation in the Arctic.

For Russia, the Arctic is important not only economically but also for security reasons. China started advancing into the Arctic in recent years. Cooperation between Japan and Russia in the area will again be partly aimed at countering Chinese moves.

But even if cooperation between Japan and Russia expands, it is unlikely that bilateral relations will become closer than relations between China and Russia.

That is because Russia has closer economic and diplomatic relations with China than with Japan. Russia's strategy is to use Japan as a safety valve to prevent excessive dependence on China while maintaining its close ties.

"China is growing stronger and might become a threat in the future. But at present, China is a close strategic partner. Russia does not feel the need to counter China or rush to conclude a treaty as much as Japan does," said one Russian expert on foreign affairs familiar with the negotiations around the territorial row with Japan.

Still, if the territorial dispute moves toward a breakthrough, Asia's geopolitics will be affected considerably. Moves by Japan and Russia will draw more attention than ever before next year, when negotiations go into full swing.

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