On June 27, Japan dispatched a team of government officials and business representatives to the Russian-controlled Southern Kurils. These islands off the coast of Hokkaido have been administered by Moscow since the end of World War II but continue to be claimed by Japan as its Northern Territories. The purpose of the five-day visit is to conduct preliminary research on the prospects for Japan-Russia joint economic activities on the islands.
According to Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, this represents "without doubt, a big step towards resolving the territorial issue and concluding a peace treaty." The trip has also been claimed as justifying Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's "new approach" to Russia. This controversial policy of rapprochement, which was unveiled in May 2016, calls for Japan to use economic cooperation and frequent high-level contacts to create a more positive dynamic in bilateral relations. Tokyo hopes that this strategy will ultimately lead to Russian territorial concessions. While there have been significant recent developments, in reality such moves have actually demonstrated the failure of Abe's "new approach."
The plan for joint economic activities on the disputed islands was supposedly the main achievement of President Vladimir Putin's much anticipated visit to Japan in December 2016. In particular, it was claimed as a major breakthrough on the basis that joint projects would be conducted under a special legal framework, and not under Russian law. This would enable Japanese to visit and work on the islands without tacitly acknowledging Russian authority. Many in Japan took this as a sign of Russian willingness to compromise on sovereignty issues, thereby opening the way for a transfer of territory or some form of condominium.
In fact, it is unlikely that these joint economic activities will ever occur. To begin with, the initial survey visit was originally scheduled for the end of May but was postponed by the Russian authorities. It was only after Abe dispatched his special adviser Eiichi Hasegawa to Sakhalin on May 30 that they conceded to the date in June. It therefore seems that the Russian side is playing for time. Further discouraging signs include the recent discovery of a Russian research vessel operating within Japan's exclusive economic zone, as well as the seizure by Russian customs of Japanese-language teaching material brought to the disputed islands by Japanese lecturers. A much anticipated charter flight to take former Japanese residents to the islands was cancelled due to fog on June 18 and has yet to be rearranged.
There has also been no real progress on the fundamental legal question regarding joint economic activities. This is no small matter since it affects issues such as which court would hear a commercial dispute and to which authority taxes would be paid. There is also concern among Russian commentators that such a system would amount to extraterritoriality and be inconsistent with Russia's constitution. On June 26, the governor of Sakhalin, which administers the islands, stated that Russia was willing to create a special economic zone on the islands based on "common international rules." But his proposal remains vague and, in general, the Russian foreign ministry has indicated it seeks to postpone discussion of legal issues until after concrete projects have been agreed. This again suggests a lack of seriousness.
The crucial turning point, however, is that since the start of June, the Russian leadership has begun to explicitly link the territorial problem to broader security issues. Specifically, on June 1, Putin emphasized the strategic importance of the islands and raised concerns that any transfer to Japanese control could mean that "tomorrow some [U.S.] bases or elements of missile defense will appear there, for us this is absolutely unacceptable."
Demonstrating that this was no isolated remark, on June 15, the Russian embassy in Tokyo held an unprecedented security briefing to warn Japan against participating in the expansion of U.S. missile defense systems. The same day, Putin told journalists that, while joint activities with Japan on the islands were possible in principle, problems remained: "Namely, there are security issues, including in this region and regarding Japan's commitments to its allies ... Depending on how these issues are addressed, a final decision will be made [on joint economic activities]. At present, it is premature to say."
Russia's strategy is therefore clear. Facing a Japanese leader who has made resolving the territorial dispute with Russia one of his foreign policy priorities, Moscow is going to exploit the situation to extract as many advantages as possible. This certainly includes pressing for increased investment from Japan. Yet, it is now apparent Russia will also use the territorial issue to promote the concept that the alliance with the United States is harmful to Japan's national interests.
Evidently, the Russian side knows it cannot cause Japan to break with the U.S. The addition of any points of friction, however, will still be regarded as valuable. In particular, Japan is a key U.S. partner in missile defense. Tokyo is considering purchasing the U.S. Aegis Ashore or its THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile system to supplement its existing capabilities. Moreover, Japan and the U.S. have jointly developed the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA ballistic missile interceptor, which is slated for deployment in Poland in 2018. Since Russia is convinced that these systems are directed at its own nuclear deterrent, it has strong incentives to discourage Japan from deeper involvement.
Overall, rather than genuinely considering territorial concessions, Moscow is using the prospect of a territorial deal to lure Japan away from the U.S. This is a tactic it has tried before. Specifically, in the Soviet-Japan Joint Declaration of 1956, the Soviet Union offered to transfer the two smaller of the disputed islands to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty. The intention was to discourage Japan from agreeing a renewed security pact with the U.S. When Tokyo ignored this pressure and signed the Security Treaty in 1960, the Soviet Union withdrew the offer of the two islands. It was only reinstated under Putin's leadership.
In short, far from delivering a breakthrough on the territorial dispute, Abe's "new approach" has simply provided Russia with an opportunity to gain leverage over Japan on security issues.
James D.J. Brown is an associate professor in political science at Temple University in Tokyo and a specialist on Russo-Japanese relations.