Asymmetry of Russia–Japan Relations

June 14, 2018 Asia , Europe , Opinion , OPINION/NEWS , Russia

AP photo



Anna Kireeva



On May 25–26, 2018, Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe made an official visit to Russia. This was Mr. Abe’s 21st meeting with Vladimir Putin, which is truly unprecedented for Russia–Japan relations. On May 25, Prime Minister Abe took part in the plenary session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum together with the presidents of Russia and France; in conjunction with Vladimir Putin, Mr. Abe held a Russia–Japan business dialogue. Already in Moscow on May 26, the two leaders held bilateral talks, contacted the International Space Station, whose current crew includes a Japanese astronaut, and conducted the opening ceremony of launching the “cross years” of Russia and Japan in the Bolshoi Theatre.


The speeches by Russia and Japan’s leaders and their talks showcased both their desire to continue expanding cooperation between the two countries and the remaining asymmetry of expectations concerning a peace treaty. In his speech at the SPIEF plenary session, Prime Minister Abe suggested engaging in a bit of dreaming and painted a picture of a new logistical highway in the Arctic Ocean, the Bering Sea, the northern part of the Pacific and the Sea of Japan; in this picture, the Sea of Japan becomes a “gigantic logistics highway” transporting various cargo. For instance, LNG from Yamal and the Arctic Ocean would be delivered to Japan and transshipped to Japanese tankers heading to the markets of Asia Pacific and India. The Prime Minister said the transformation of this space into “waters of peace and prosperity with solid supremacy of law” would be possible pursuant to concluding a peace treaty. In the statement following the Russia–Japan talks, Prime Minister Abe once again referred to sincere commitment to resolving the issue of a peace treaty, which the leaders confirmed during President Putin’s visit to Japan in December 2016. He even suggested to Vladimir Putin that an end to the issue of the peace treaty be reached “during the lifetime of this generation.” Thus, once again, Prime Minister Abe stressed the personal contacts between the two leaders.


The President of Russia noted the discussion of the issue and emphasized that “we feel it important to continue a patient search for a solution which would meet the strategic interests of both Russia and Japan and would be acceptable for the people of both countries.” The asymmetry manifests itself in unarticulated, yet persistent differences concerning the timeframe, as well as in Japan prioritizing the signing of the peace treaty and resolving the territorial issue in the shortest possible time [1], while Russia stresses building a solid foundation for bilateral relations and an atmosphere of trust.


The two countries’ leaders discussed conducting joint economic activities on the four Kuril Islands in five priority areas and agreed that a third delegation of Japanese businesspersons and officials would visit the islands this year. In addition, as in 2017, there will be a special chartered flight for Japanese citizens wishing to visit the graves of their ancestors on the Kuril Islands. Nonetheless, there was no progress on the most complicated issue of the legal framework for joint economic activities. Consequently, the issue of coordinating Japan’s position [2] with Russia’s position [3] remains open. Most likely, the two countries’ leaders will have another chance to show some progress on the issue at the planned meeting at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in September 2018.


On the whole, Japan’s media are disappointed with the visit and stress particularly that the Prime Minister failed to bring from Moscow any major results on the peace treaty or joint economic activity. These results prompted several experts to claim that Mr. Abe’s visit was a failure for Japan, which further damaged the Prime Minister’s ratings that were already falling owing to a series of domestic corruption scandals. Mainichi Shimbun writes that progress on the territorial issue is still far away and arrangements for joint economic activity had run into a “wall” of different stances on sovereignty. Japan entertained expectations that, after being elected for his fourth presidential term, Vladimir Putin would be more inclined toward a compromise, but the newspaper quotes an anonymous high-ranking Japanese official as saying that Tokyo “misgauged the temperature in Russia.” The right-wing Sankei Shimbun, which has long been criticizing Mr. Abe’s Russia policy as too soft, savages both Russia for its harsh stance standing in the way of “returning the islands” and the Prime Minister’s policy. Noting that, thus far, not a single joint economic activity project had been implemented and the special legal framework had not been established, the newspaper questions the approach itself, since it does not see how joint projects will help Japan regain control of the islands. Russia is accused of wishing to provide for its economic interests at Japan’s expense and, on the whole, of wishing to demolish forcibly the world order based on international law.


Japan faced the complicated task of striking a balancing stance on the “Skripal case” between the interests of western countries, primarily the US, and Russia. Japan did not expel Russian diplomats and, for a long time, abstained from condemning Russia. Following the meeting between Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, and his Japanese counterpart Taro Kono in March 2018, the latter noted that use of chemical weapons was unacceptable and all the facts of the case must be ascertained. The stance of the government was often criticized by Japan’s right-wing media, which condemned Japan’s inaction as unacceptable and contrary to its national interests, since, the media claimed, it put a question mark over Japan’s commitment to liberal values and could prompt distrust. In April 2018, Japan joined the other G7 countries in a statement supporting Great Britain’s stance on Russia’s complicity in the poisoning in Salisbury, condemning Russia’s refusal to respond to the enquiries by the British government and calling upon Russia to “respond urgently” to the questions on “the Skripal case.” Russia’s ambassador to Japan noted that Japan’s signature on the document was regrettable.


Are Russia–Japan relations at an impasse and could Shinzo Abe’s latest visit to Russia be called unproductive? Not at all. Even with all the current and emerging difficulties in the two countries’ relations, the answer to the question is hardly a “yes.” Rather, it is the inflated expectations of Japan’s media concerning a breakthrough after Mr. Putin’s re-election that raise questions. Russia gave no grounds for such expectations. The result is an artificial re-creation of Russia’s negative image in the mind of the Japanese public. The consultations between the ministries of foreign affairs did not give reason to expect any breakthrough either. Experts note that agreements may not be materializing, for one, owing to unclear prospects surrounding Mr. Abe’s re-election as Chairman of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan for a third term in September 2018 to 2021 because of corruption scandals. The Party has a majority of the seats in Parliament. Accordingly, we may be talking a hiatus until it becomes clear whether Mr. Abe will retain the office of Prime Minister or another politician will take Japan’s helm.



Building a dialogue in politics and security


In politics and security, Russia and Japan have succeeded in revitalizing and building multi-format cooperation. In November 2017, Russia’s Pacific Navy and the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ran the 17th joint naval rescue exercise. In September 2017, Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of the Russian Federation Security Council, and Shotaro Yachi, Secretary General of Japan’s National Security Council, signed a memorandum of understanding setting the framework for regular consultations and exchange of opinions between the National Security Councils of both countries. In December 2017, Patrushev and Yachi exchanged opinions in Moscow in accordance with these arrangements. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of General Staff, visited Tokyo and held talks with Japanese colleagues. The Ministries of Defense of Russia and Japan have slated approximately 20 joint events for 2018 in order to implement the trust measures in this area.


Revealingly, in January 2018, in his speech to Parliament, Prime Minister Abe described Japan’s relations with Russia as having the greatest potential among all bilateral relations. For the first time ever, Japan’s diplomatic bluebook for 2018 offers the same description of relations with Russia. The Bluebook notes that, given the increasing tensions and strategic competition in Asia Pacific, establishing partnership relations with Russia is in Japan’s national interests and is conducive to promoting peace and developing the region.


In March 2018, Ministers of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov and Taro Kono held consultations. The key point of contention in security prompting Russia’s concern was Japan’s decision to deploy the US Aegis Ashore missile defense system. Although Japan insisted Aegis posed no threat to other countries and was intended to protect Japan against North Korean missiles, Sergey Lavrov noted that, if the US plans to deploy a global missile defense system involved Japan, it would directly affect Russia’s security. He drew particular attention to the need to develop collective measures, bolster strategic stability and ensure strategic parity, and he noted that security issues in the region were of major importance in the context of negotiating the peace treaty. The parties agreed to hold future consultations on the issue. It is quite possible that it will be one of the topics at the revived “2+2” talks between the ministers of foreign affairs and ministers of defense to be held in the second half of 2018. These talks were announced during Mr. Putin and Mr. Abe’s meeting on May 26. Settlement of the Korean Peninsula situation was also an important discussion topic at the Moscow summit.



Economic cooperation and launching “cross years” of Russia and Japan


The two countries’ leaders attended the Russia-Japan business dialogue at SPIEF; its key agenda focused on developing economic cooperation. The delegation of Japanese businesspersons was one of the biggest at the Forum. Speaking at the plenary session, Japan’s Prime Minister stressed the results that had already been achieved over two years since he had announced the “eight point cooperation plan.” According Mr. Abe, the purpose of the plan is to show the people of Russia what fruits cooperation with Japan could bear. Prime Minister Abe said that Japan would like to become a catalyst to economic transformations in Russia and that many points of the plan correspond to the 2024 development goals announced by the President of Russia (for instance, increasing life expectancy by using Japanese medical technologies and increasing labor productivity by introducing the kaizen system). Speaking at the business dialogue, the President of Russia noted that Japan was one of the priority partners in Asia Pacific and in the world in general, but both the trade turnover between the two countries (USD 18 billion last year) and investment cooperation could be increased several-fold. Both leaders noted that economic relations were developing and, out of a hundred plus projects, more than a half have entered the implementation stage. The Prime Minister of Japan made particular note of Russian employees whose internships at Japanese enterprises helped improve their labor productivity.


The dialogue featured discussions of specific projects in such areas as healthcare, pharmaceuticals, urban infrastructure (transforming Voronezh and Vladivostok into “smart cities”), energy (cooperation on Sakhalin projects and Japan’s interest in taking part in Yamal-LNG), car manufacturing, production of mineral fertilizers, industry, transportation, including shipping by rail, postal services, and the digital economy. For instance, in 2018, Sollers and Mazda should complete construction of a plant in Vladivostok manufacturing vehicle engines. The engines will be shipped to Hiroshima and then exported globally, which will be one of the first examples of Russia participating in a hi-tech segment of the VAT chains Japan has established in Asia Pacific. Prime Minister Abe drew particular attention to the fact that the Russia–Japan investment platform established in 2017 by the RDIF and JBIC with USD 1 billion in capital had already financed three projects (Transneft’s infrastructure project, the Doctis online platform and a gas chemical complex jointly with Marubeni). Revealingly, Russian businesspersons said that the Russia–Japan investment fund had received more applications than it could cope with financially and said they were interested in additional capitalization.


Of course, problems in bilateral economic relations were also mentioned. Teruo Asada, Chair of the Russia-Japan Business Cooperation Committee at Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), noted that Japanese business was not particularly active in the ASEZ in the Russian Far East and in Free Port of Vladivostok. He believes that expanding participation requires improving the infrastructure, prolonging the preferential tax regime and creating a climate suitable for developing public-private partnerships. There were questions about lowering red-tape barriers in the Russian economy, about possible measures for supporting bilateral cooperation, about the need to improve the system of currency exchange and to reduce currency risks, about the possibilities of increasing Japan’s investment and implementing major projects. Japanese business is concerned about the economic expedience of projects.


All in all, following the talks between Russia and Japan’s leaders, 11 documents were signed, including on concretizing the plan for cooperation between the two countries, an action plan for cooperation in increasing labour productivity and on digitizing economy, as well as arrangements for creating “smart cities,” on industry, including building a chemical cluster in Volgograd and a plant for building railway engines, on financial and biotechnologies, and hi-tech medical equipment.


Finally, the grand ceremony of launching “cross years” of Russia in Japan and Japan in Russia held at the Bolshoi Theatre and attended by Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin, should launch a huge number of events in culture and humanitarian cooperation, public and youth exchanges, tourism, science and scholarship, education, information and communications, economy, energy, and healthcare. In addition, regional connections are slated for the exchange program on an unprecedented scale and many events will be held in the Russian Far East. The countries have also agreed to revive the Russia-Japan Council of Governors, which had been quite effective in the Soviet era. It should complement the stepped-up contacts between the governments and parliaments of the two countries. The launch of “cross years” should promote more active contacts in various areas, development of friendly ties between people and, most importantly, it should promote trust between the peoples of both countries and lay down the foundations for bilateral relations. This objective is of crucial importance for Russia-Japan relations, since the lack of a broad public foundation and prevailingly negative image of Russia in Japan’s public opinion is believed to be one of the key problems. Holding “cross years” will engage the reserve of Japan’s love for classical Russian culture and, given a goal-orientated policy, it will improve Russia’s image.




Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Russia on May 25–26; his visit should be treated as another working one intended to put into practice previously achieved arrangements and promote further development of relations in the economy and energy, as well as cultural and humanitarian cooperation. Launching “cross-years” of Russia and Japan should contribute to laying down the public foundations for bilateral relations, one of the key tasks for improving said relations and intensifying contacts in all areas of bilateral interaction. Undoubtedly, there are plenty of unresolved problems remaining in these bilateral relations and the international and political situation creates additional challenges for both countries. The meeting of the two countries’ leaders did not result in any breakthrough agreements or a large package of signed documents, but it showcased the two countries’ focus on expanding cooperation and their readiness to work steadily in that area. Shinzo Abe and Vladimir Putin’s next meeting, slated for the autumn of 2018, will be an important indicator of the parties’ success in launching implementation of their agreements on joint economic activities on the southern Kuril Islands.





This article was originally published by the RIAC and is reproduced with their kind permission




1 – There are well-founded doubts that resolving this issue, without adequate economic conditions, would in itself create grounds for breakthrough expansion of economic cooperation.


2 – Japan insists on establishing a special legal regime that would not fall under Russia’s jurisdiction and would not, therefore, confirm Russia’s sovereignty.


3 – Russia’s stance is based on the premise that any activity on the Kuril Islands should be carried out in accordance with the Russian legislation, since this is territory belonging to the Russian Federation.




Anna Kireeva

PhD in Political Science, Associate Professor, Department of Oriental Studies; Researcher, Center for Comprehensive Chinese Studies and Regional Projects at MGIMO, RIAC expert.

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