Can Lavrov’s Visit to Tokyo Become Prelude to Peace Treaty with Japan?

The years 2018-2020 may become the turning point for Northeast Asia, where Russia and Japan will play no less important and cooperative role. Thus mutual interests can surpass the old antagonism of the two countries as “distant neighbors,” paving the way to becoming “benign neighbors.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Tokyo and held negotiations with his counterpart, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono, two days after Vladimir Putin’s historic victory in the presidential election in March. Veteran diplomat Sergei Lavrov came to Japan as an acting capacity, because President Putin is going to form a new Cabinet after inauguration in May.

Meanwhile, Taro Kono was appointed as Foreign Minister in August 2017. He is grandson of the famous politician Ichiro Kono who had negotiated with Nikita Khrushchev on the Soviet-Japanese Peace Treaty in 1956, helping Premier Minister Ichiro Hatoyama, though most of the LDP politicians were negative. Kono himself is 55 years old as an LDP politician, who had been educated in Georgetown University and speaks fluent English. Some pundits consider him a rising Japanese politician of the post-Abe generation.

Both Lavrov and Kono talked on the forthcoming visit of Premier Abe to Moscow to see President Putin on May 26 at the opening ceremony of the Russo-Japanese Year of 2018. There, Premier Abe and President Putin are going to talk about the Peace Treaty which is long overdue. This ceremony marks the 21st meeting of the two countries’ top leaders. In his recent comment in February, Kono characterized the Russo-Japanese relations as “the most promising bilateral relations”. Abe and Kono expect a kind of breakthrough from this meeting, partly because President Putin does not want to run for re-election anymore and can possibly make hard decisions on such difficult issues like territorial sovereignty. Of course, some negate this story as unlikely but, there is some truth to this, partly because a new stage of negotiations followed the Yamaguchi meeting with President Putin in December 2016. Japanese side accepted realistic, or condominium approach to the disputed four islands, or Northern Territories, to have a “Joint Economic Activities (JEA)” there.

JEA is a special international legal framework to cope with mutually beneficial activities without violating legal positions of either side. They are now negotiating on five projects, namely on fishery farming, sightseeing, vegetable plant, wind farm and garbage disposal. Both agreed to speed up the legal agreements on the JEA projects before May. Also, both came to agreement on flights of former islanders to visit tombs in the disputed lands. They agreed that two meetings at the vice-ministerial level would follow twice, in April and May, before the summit in May.

No less important agenda for both is the current status of the DPRK nuclear crisis and the upcoming summit meetings between Kim Jong-un and Moon Jae-In in April and between Donald Trump and Kim summit which is likely to take place in May. Both had exchanged their views on this important agenda.

Still, opinions on the assessment of this meeting are divided between optimists and pessimists. The pessimistic Asahi Shimbun reported that Lavrov was critical of the heightening tension between the US and Russia and underlined the Japanese commitment to the US in line with the Security Treaty. In fact, Lavrov expressed concern about the deployment of the land-based Aegis missiles, which Japan decided to buy from the US to cope with the DPRK nuclear and missile crisis. Others comment that the Japanese-based missile defenses have limited capacity and are not directed at Moscow. This author agrees with the latter view to the effect that Japan is not a threat to Russia militarily.

The Russo-Japanese relations are thus being fluctuated by the international upheavals in Northeast Asia, following the DPRK missile and nuclear crises. This is not accidental, because Japanese security and foreign policy was formulated in the Cold War days, or during the hot Korean War periods of 1950-53. The San Francisco Treaty of 1951, where Japan renounced the Kuril Islands and other territories, became the international foundation of the postwar independent Japan. The Korean War is not over and the issue still haunts Northeast Asia. The years 2018-2020 may become the turning point for this part of the world, where Russia and Japan will play no less important and cooperative role. Thus mutual interests will surpass the old antagonism of the two countries as “distant neighbors,” paving the way to becoming “benign neighbors.”

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.