Changes are taking place in contemporary politics, both globally and regionally. Russo-Japanese relations are not an exception. Moscow summit meeting of President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe which took place on 27th April was the seventeenth meeting between them since 2012. It was not so drastic, but it also demonstrated that steady progress was accumulating in bilateral relations.
Previous December Summit in Yamaguchi/Tokyo divided opinions, not only among Japanese, but also among international experts. Seemingly, both leaders failed to make tangible progress on the territorial issue, and this fact gave rather ambiguous impression. Positivists appreciated the ‘joint economic activities’ as the new breakthrough on the disputed lands, stepping down from sovereign approach, choosing instead concrete accommodational approach on the basis of condominium type of solution. Others took negative view, because the Yamaguchi Summit meeting failed to find visible solution on the issue that had haunted Japan for sixty years after the Joint Declaration of 1956.
This April summit proved that positivist view was getting momentum. Both leaders reaffirmed that the peace treaty was necessary, and agreed to conclude it within their own leadership and tenure. Trust among leaders, business circles and people of both countries is a necessary prerequisite for the solution of territorial issue. Also they came to conclusion that ‘joint economic activities’ in the northern territories were the only path: fish farming, ecotourism, remote medical care and others. Prime Minister Abe said that small successes were necessary to advance bigger projects. Anyway both leaders are accumulating several projects and are checking jointly to make them feasible. It was also agreed to carry out former islanders’ visit to the graves of their relatives by chartered flight in June. Joint official and business research group on ‘joint economic activities’ will visit the northern territories this May.
President Putin in his address made a positive evaluation of Japanese economic cooperation program of the eight points: smart city, middle and small business, agriculture, health and medical care, IT, Far East development etc. Among others are energy projects - from gas pipeline projects, LNG projects and electricity export from Russia. Trade volume will increase in 2017. Steady and progressive improvement of bilateral political relations is also visible from the ‘Two plus Two’ meetings, regular visits by ministers. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu visited Japan this March and had meetings with their counterparts.
Step by step approach was endorsed by both leaders. They agreed to see each other regularly at the July G20 meeting at Hamburg, Germany, and at the Vladivostok Eastern Economic Forum in September. Both leaders are now meeting in a ‘tete-a-tete’ style every three or four months to ensure and check the process of implementation of bilateral cooperation.
Still vague is the jurisdiction on which ‘joint economic activities’ should be observed. Prime Minister Abe said that ‘special framework’ would be worked out to implement ‘joint economic activities’. That can be the next important agendas on which both leaders are to settle and concentrate in the nearest future.
Needless to say, this summit meeting took place in a turbulent context of global politics, following the emergence of unpredictable Trump administration and deteriorating crises over the DPRK nuclear menace. US-Russian relations were seriously damaged by the US sudden attack on Syria.
Still positive side of the new Trump administration is that new American president did not interfere on Abe’s approach towards Moscow. This is probably due to Prime Minister Abe’s deliberate approach to President Trump. Meanwhile, President Obama tried to oppose Abe’s visit to Sochi last May.
However, there may also be negative side over bilateral issue. Prime Minister Abe expressed his ‘understanding’ of President Trump’s decision on Syria over the so called use of “sarin” by Assad regime. Anyway, Trump’s leadership is unpredictable like Yeltsin regime: ‘family’, military and energy oligarchs are competing with each other over the President.
This had direct impact on Abe-Putin talks, especially on delicate DPRK nuclear issue. Prime Minister Abe admitted that ‘frank’ discussion took place on this issue. Intensifying tension over the Korean peninsula also suggests that big gaps exist between Tokyo and Moscow over the crisis and fate of Kim Jong Un regime. Japan as an ally of US takes tougher policies towards Kim, whilst Putin endorsed ‘Six party talks’ as a channel of easing tensions. Although both leaders agreed that dialogue was necessary on DPRK nuclear issue, their positions were far from reaching consensus.
The Trump administration has not yet completed her policy in all foreign policy parameters. Even US policy towards Russia may change again, especially on the North East Asian and Far East direction. It ought to be noted that US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson had been engaged in Sakhalin-1 project and knows geo-politics and geo-economics of the Russian Far East.
The DPRK issue is now being engaged by US and China and both the role of Japan and Russia now seems rather secondary. But it cannot be ruled out that exit policy from the debacle is also necessary, especially when brinkmanship policy amounts to a critical moment. The talks between Abe and Putin may be a new channel for a way out, avoiding unnecessary tensions in this part of the world. Both Abe and Putin are more or less conservative politicians of similar views, especially at the background of the unpredictable North East Asian power configuration. Closer ties between Tokyo and Moscow may give new chances not only for bilateral relations, but also for regional security issues.
Nobuo Shimotomai is Professor, Hosei University, Tokyo; Senior Research Fellow, Japan Institute of International Affairs.