The ongoing situation between Japan and Russia is warlike, specifically the unresolved territorial dispute over the Kuril Islands and the absence of an official peace treaty since the end of World War II. The geopolitical dynamics between the two nations have been complex, with attempts at rapprochement in the past, notably by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe.
The invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022 has added a new layer to the relationship, with Japan imposing economic sanctions in response. This has led to a suspension of peace-treaty negotiations and a deterioration of Japan-Russia relations. The potential for Japan to use leverage gained from the fallout of Russia’s actions in Ukraine to bring Russia back to the negotiation table is interesting.
The suggestion that resolving the territorial dispute and concluding a peace treaty could benefit the United States in the Indo-Pacific region by potentially weakening economic sanctions against Russia underscores the intricate interplay of global geopolitics. However, it’s essential to note that international relations are highly dynamic, and outcomes depend on various factors, including diplomatic efforts, geopolitical alignments, and the evolving nature of conflicts and alliances.
Abe’s New Approach to Russia
The territorial dispute between Japan and Russia traces back to the final days of World War II when the Soviet Union took control of the islands of Etorofu, Habomai, Kunashiri, and Shikotan, known as the Southern Kuril Islands by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan. This disagreement has persisted for nearly eight decades, preventing a resolution between the two nations.
Previous attempts to address the dispute were largely unsuccessful. However, in 2012, then-Prime Minister Shinzō Abe prioritized improving relations with Russia. He initiated an unprecedented combined foreign and defence ministerial meeting. He embarked on an extensive effort to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin, holding twenty-seven meetings during his seven-year tenure. In a notable gesture, Abe even offered Putin a puppy at one meeting.
Abe’s strategy involved a novel approach, using economic incentives to advance peace-treaty negotiations. In 2016, he presented a comprehensive eight-point economic cooperation plan to Russia. This plan included joint development of Russian oil and natural gas fields, Japanese support for infrastructure projects in a Russian city, and a Japanese loan to Russia’s Sberbank. To emphasize his commitment, Abe attended Russia’s Eastern Economic Forum annually from 2016 to 2019.
This approach initially showed promise, leading to an agreement in early 2019 to base negotiations on the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration. This declaration outlined a framework where Russia would cede two of the disputed islands, and Japan would renounce claims to the other two.
Despite these diplomatic efforts, the situation became more strained in 2022 due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leading to a suspension of peace treaty negotiations and a downturn in Japan-Russia relations.
In the early 2010s, China’s significant military expansion and assertive foreign policy, particularly concerning the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, prompted Japan to recognize the growing security threat. Japan, discerning the increasing danger from China, decided to pivot its security focus towards the south. Over the subsequent decade, Japan undertook measures such as constructing new missile and radar bases on the Ryukyu Islands and conducting large-scale military exercises, including the redeployment of troops from Hokkaidō to Kyushu. This strategic shift marked Japan’s most extensive military exercise since the Cold War.
The apprehension over China’s rising power also motivated Japan, under Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, to bolster the Quad—a loose coalition involving Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. This cooperative effort aimed to balance and counteract China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region. Abe’s interest in strengthening ties with Russia and possibly concluding a peace treaty could be viewed as part of a broader strategy to allocate resources more effectively in dealing with the perceived threat from China.
Abe’s approach might have been driven by the optimistic notion that fostering warmer relations between Japan and Russia could potentially transform Russia into a counterbalance against China in Northeast Asia. This strategic move could, at the very least, complicate Beijing’s efforts to enlist Moscow in a united front against Japan. The evolving geopolitical dynamics in the region have influenced Japan’s considerations and prompted a reevaluation of its longstanding policies, including discussions about significantly increasing defence spending to address security challenges posed by China.
Japan leverage shifts
The early stages of Shinzō Abe’s engagement with Russia presented an opportune moment for diplomatic progress. Russia, grappling with the economic ramifications of Western sanctions imposed after its 2014 invasion of Ukraine, was motivated to negotiate. Japan’s economic initiatives were initially well-received, aligning with Russia’s interest in alleviating its economic challenges. However, as time passed, Russia’s economic situation improved, with healthy growth by 2018. Additionally, shifting global dynamics, including tensions between the United States and China, altered Moscow’s strategic calculations, making a closer alliance with China seem more favourable than engagement with Japan, an ally of the United States.
The absence of sustained economic or political pressure diminished Russia’s urgency to resolve its territorial dispute with Japan. Russia, in control of all four disputed islands and reinforcing its military presence in the Kuril Islands, found Abe’s eight-point economic cooperation plan insufficient to prompt a change in the status quo. The plan did not induce Russia to relinquish its political leverage over Japan, a key ally of the United States. Despite optimistic expectations during negotiations in late 2018, the window for Japan to secure a peace treaty seemed to have closed by the time Abe left office two years later.
The landscape changed with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The intensified economic pressure from the West, including Japan’s participation in sanctions, presented a renewed opportunity for Japan. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the successor to Abe, adopted a more assertive stance, reverting to the term ‘inherent territory’ to describe the Northern Territories and taking measures such as freezing assets of Russian banks and expelling diplomats.
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has spurred a notable shift in Japan’s foreign policy, signalling a departure from its traditional stance. Demonstrating solidarity, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the Japanese Diet on March 23, 2022, an unprecedented move highlighting Japan’s support. In a departure from its pacifist approach, Tokyo sent military equipment, including drones and protective gear, to Ukraine, underscoring a significant policy change.
Japan’s commitment extended beyond material aid, as it agreed to accept refugees from Ukraine, marking a departure from its historical reluctance to provide asylum. The financial commitment to Ukraine is substantial, with Japan pledging $200 million in emergency humanitarian assistance and an additional $600 million in financial aid.
The crisis in Ukraine prompted Japan to engage more closely with NATO. The Japanese Foreign Minister’s participation in NATO meetings as a ‘partner’ of the U.S.-led European alliance signifies an unprecedented level of cooperation. Prime Minister Kishida’s invitation to the NATO leader’s Summit in June further underlines Japan’s heightened involvement in international efforts.
In response to Russia’s military actions in Ukraine, Prime Minister Kishida reset Tokyo’s approach to bilateral relations with Moscow. The imposition of financial and trade sanctions, coupled with a return to a hard-line position on disputed territories, signals a new phase in Japan-Russia relations. Moscow’s counteractions, including military exercises in disputed islands, termination of ongoing peace agreement negotiations, and designating Japan as an ‘unfriendly’ country, underscore the diplomatic tensions.
The reciprocal expulsion of diplomats and restrictions on entry and visa-free status demonstrates the escalating diplomatic strife. Japan’s alignment with international condemnation of Russia’s actions, coupled with the multifaceted responses to the crisis, highlights the complexity of Japan’s evolving role in global matters.
The current frosty state of Japan-Russia relations might have the potential to thaw in the future, given certain geopolitical shifts. The intensified economic pressure from the West on Russia in 2022 could prompt Moscow to reconsider its stance on the territorial dispute with Japan. Tokyo’s economic incentives, once considered insufficient by Moscow, might gain appeal under increased Western pressure. Negotiating with Japan could be viewed as a strategic move to create political divisions among the Western countries aligned against Russia, giving Japan a potentially stronger position in future negotiations.
However, success in these negotiations is far from guaranteed. China, with an interest in keeping Japan and Russia apart, could act to restrain Russia from pursuing a rapprochement with Japan. Additionally, sceptics might argue that Russia would demand more concessions before agreeing to a peace treaty with Japan.
Despite the strained relations, there are signs of engagement between Japan and Russia. Japan, while imposing sanctions like banning the import of Russian coal, continues to purchase Russian oil and natural gas. In April, a new agreement between Japan and Russia was reached on salmon and trout fishing quotas, suggesting that diplomatic channels are still open.
The effectiveness of Japan’s leverage largely depends on the severity of Western economic sanctions against Russia. If these sanctions tighten further, Japan’s position may strengthen, especially if tensions between China and Russia resurface, reminiscent of the Cold War era. While the current Japanese Prime Minister, Fumio Kishida, may not show immediate interest in engaging with Russia, future developments could create a more conducive environment for negotiations.
However, Japan must navigate this carefully, avoiding actions that could upset its Western allies, particularly the United States. Tokyo could argue that, in the long run, focusing on China rather than Russia benefits Washington. Encouraging others to increase pressure on Moscow might also be a strategic move for Japan as it seeks to navigate the complex geopolitics.