At the plenary session of the Eastern Economic Forum Vladimir Putin offered to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to conclude a peace treaty "without preconditions" before the end of the year. This proposal seemed to look spontaneous, and so far no official answer came from the Japanese side. Nikolay Murashkin, Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Asia of the Griffith University (Australia), spoke in an interview with www.valdaiclub.com about the likelihood of the treaty signing, possible obstacles and consequences of this historic step for Northeast Asia.
If the signing of peace treaty really takes place, it would be an essential step towards the final normalization of bilateral relations between Russia and Japan, which for the rest are quite positive and promising. Describing the absence of the peace treaty, the leaders of both countries not incidentally call the situation "abnormal". Potential benefits for both sides lie on the surface, and the long-standing territorial disputes between neighboring states obviously harm their national interests.
The benefits are the following: improving the political climate, reducing mistrust and developing the legal framework for bilateral relations, which in turn can affect the development of mutually beneficial economic cooperation.
In such strategically important region as Northeast Asia, and especially in the context of Russia’s turn to the East, it is very important now for Moscow not to put all the eggs in one basket. China is a central partner for Russia, but it should avoid excessive dependence and maintain good relations with all its neighbors in the region. Economically many of them play a key role in Asia: Japan, South Korea, Russia is also developing economic relations with the DPRK.
The issues of economics and security are quite sensitive in the region, and if it is possible to remove from the agenda even one controversial issue, this will be a positive event. On the contrary, if the tension in East Asia increases (if we consider such a risky scenario with the formation of opposing blocs, alliances), then the presence of unresolved disputes can contribute to the gradual and involuntary involvement of states in coalitions that are not beneficial in other circumstances. This scenario should be avoided.
For Japan itself, the signing of the peace treaty is a chance to resolve one of the several territorial disputes with its neighbors. The prospects to resolve other two disputes - with South Korea and China - are more foggy than in case of the Southern Kuriles.
Of course, Japan understands that this is also a chance to improve relations with Russia in the context of the rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing, and the opportunity to be safe from the appearance of some anti-Japanese sentiments because of this rapprochement. At the same time, Abe is also actively engaged in improving relations between Japan and China. Moreover, Russia for Japan is not only an important economic partner, a source of energy and other natural resources, a large sales market and partner in investment programs. It is also a state, which occupies the key position in the international hierarchy, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, participating in the Korean peninsula settlement. In turn, Japan is a key participant in G7, G20 and many financial and economic organizations in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific region, which have a direct impact on Russia's foreign policy.
What can hamper the signing of a peace treaty, this is primarily a matter for the Japanese leadership. It is too early to speak about the readiness of Tokyo to take this step, since the new initiative presupposes a fundamental revision of the decades-long Japanese position: the issue of the territorial belonging of the Southern Kurils must be decided first, and later the peace treaty can be concluded. The Russian position is exactly the opposite: first - the peace treaty, later - territorial disputes. The provisions of the ratified Joint Declaration of 1956 presumed, that the USSR after the signing of peace treaty handed to Japan the islands of Habomai and Shikotan. At the same time, the Vladivostok proposal to sign a peace treaty before the end of the year without preconditions is not entirely identical to the Joint Declaration, regarding the transfer of the discussion of disputed issues to the period after the conclusion of the peace treaty.
This was not voiced at the EEF-2018. President Putin also said at the APEC summit in Danang last year, that potentially obstructive factors could be Japan’s agreements with its partners in the field of defense and security. However, in Vladivostok this time it was not stated directly whether the foreign policy commitments of Japan are an obstacle to conclude the peace treaty.
What to expect
In the coming months, we need to wait for concrete statements from the Japanese government, if, of course, positions on such a sensitive issue will be publicly announced. In any case, loud statements or public commitments on the part of Japan should not be expected until September 20, because this day the ruling Liberal Democratic Party will elect its chairman. Shinzo Abe is likely to receive another three-year mandate, but before the election in any case he will be very cautious, and, most likely, after the election, too. The bilateral dialogue will continue with a high degree of probability, even if the proposal of the Russian leader is inappropriate for Tokyo in the present format.
Immediately after the speech of Vladimir Putin there was a reaction from Yoshihide Suga, Chief Cabinet Secretary. Speaking at a press conference, he refrained from substantive comments but said, that the government's position on the territorial issue remains unchanged. This is quite predictable, because Putin’s proposal was unexpected for all, and the Japanese need to think over it.
A departure from the Japanese traditional position means a very difficult compromise. On the other hand, Abe in his foreign policy toward Russia repeatedly demonstrated, at least at the level of "signals", a consistent readiness to review the conservative positions of his predecessors.