Under the Shinzo Abe administration, Japan followed a policy of active engagement with Russia in order to settle the long-standing postwar issue of concluding a peace treaty and resolving ownership of the contested territory known in Japan as the Northern Territories and in Russia as the South Kuril Islands. Ultimately, however, no agreement was reached before Prime Minister Abe stepped down on September 16, 2020, after seven years and eight months at the helm.

His administration also actively promoted an eight-point economic cooperation plan with Russia, with Abe attending the annual Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok for four consecutive years from 2016. On the security front, in April 2013 the administration set up a diplomatic and defense ministerial meeting (“two plus two”) with Russia: an unprecedented step with a non-aligned country.

So why were attempts to reach an agreement unsuccessful? In November 2018, Abe met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Singapore and agreed to accelerate peace treaty negotiations on the basis of the 1956 Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration, which stipulated the handover of two of the four contested islands—Shikotan and Habomai—to Japan after the conclusion of a peace treaty.

Two months prior to that, at the Eastern Economic Forum, Putin had proposed to Abe that the two sides “conclude a peace treaty by the end of this year without preconditions.” Soon after, at the annual international Valdai Discussion Club in October, I asked Putin what the Vladivostok proposal really meant. His reply can be summarized as follows.

“With China, we fostered relations of trust through the conclusion of the Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation in 2001, and we finally settled the territorial issue in 2004. Let us first conclude a similar treaty with Japan to foster a relationship of trust sufficient to resolve the territorial issue.”

The Singapore agreement was in response to a counterproposal from Japan, but if we interpret Putin’s answer at the Valdai forum in a straightforward manner, it is difficult to assume that the Russian side would have agreed to even a two-island handover based on the 1956 Declaration. In fact, in January of the following year, Foreign Minister Taro Kono and Abe visited Russia in short succession to try to accelerate negotiations for a peace treaty, but they ended unsuccessfully. Nor was any real progress made at the Japan-Russia prime ministers’ meeting in Osaka in June, after which negotiations definitively stagnated.

It seems that the main reason the Singapore agreement failed to materialize under the Abe administration was the difference in Japanese and Russian perceptions of the purpose of a peace treaty. While the Japanese side saw a treaty with Russia as a “total settlement of postwar diplomacy,” the Russian side stated that the prerequisite for the conclusion of a treaty was the strengthening of bilateral relations in all areas, including politics, economics, culture, and security. However, given the current state of U.S.-Russian relations, it would be exceedingly difficult for Japan to boost its relations with Russia to a qualitatively new level, especially in terms of security, while maintaining a strong Japanese-U.S. alliance, the cornerstone of its security.

In addition, a clause on the “prohibition of territorial cession” was included in the revised Russian constitution that was passed in July 2020. With regard to this clause, in a press conference with media executives broadcast in February this year, Putin said, “We want to develop relations with Japan, and we will continue to do so, but we will not do anything that contradicts Russia’s Basic Law.”

Since the revised constitution excludes border demarcation work from the prohibition clause, there is still room to continue peace treaty negotiations with Japan. Putin referred a question about border demarcation to Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, without going into specifics. However, Lavrov’s position is that Russia’s control of the four islands is a result of World War II, and that Japan’s recognition of this fact is a prerequisite for the implementation of the Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration. Yet as soon as the Japanese side acknowledges this, it would become unconstitutional for Russia to hand over the territory to Japan. If this is the case, then it seems highly unlikely that the Russian side will agree to hand over the two islands in the near future, regardless of the 1956 Declaration.

Abe explained the strategic thinking behind his active diplomacy with Russia in a recent magazine interview.

“The essence of Japan-Russia relations lies in the conclusion of a peace treaty and the resolution of the Northern Territories issue, which is a precondition for such a treaty. However, the background to the administration’s proactive approach to this issue is not only the context of the bilateral relationship between Japan and Russia, but also the basic idea that, as China is strengthening its military power in East Asia and attempting to unilaterally change the status quo in the East and South China Seas, as a strategic decision, Russia must not be driven to the side of China, and that relations with Russia must be improved. This was a strategic view that was fully discussed internally and shared by the entire administration, not just by me.”

So the Abe administration’s policy of active engagement with Russia had two goals: first, resolving the territorial issue and concluding a peace treaty, and second, improving relations with Russia, given that China is becoming a major power in the region.

However, as mentioned above, it is unlikely that the conditions that would enable Japan and Russia to conclude a peace treaty involving the resolution of the territorial issue will be met in the near future. On the other hand, the future of the strategic rapprochement between Russia and China, which began after the Ukraine crisis in 2014 and was further accelerated under the Donald Trump administration in the United States, remains one of the biggest concerns for Japan’s diplomatic security.

With no prospect of significant improvement in Russia’s relations with the United States even under the Biden administration, the trend of strategic proximity between Russia and China is likely to remain unchanged for the time being. However, in the mid to long term, Russia aims to establish itself as a major power in Asia that maintains its strategic independence and is not overly dependent on the United States or China.

Strengthening relations with Japan will therefore continue to have strategic significance for Russia. The Yoshihide Suga administration, which aims to maintain Abe’s diplomacy, should continue (without rushing) its policy of engagement with Russia from a long-term and strategic perspective, while keeping the conclusion of a peace treaty accompanied by the resolution of the territorial issue as a future task.

In September 2019, Mitsui and Japan Oil, Gas, and Metals National Corporation, with the backing of the Japanese government, decided to take a 10 percent stake in the Arctic-2 offshore LNG project belonging to Russia’s Novatek in the Arctic Ocean. Japanese companies, including Mitsui O.S.K. Lines (MOL), are also involved in plans to develop LNG transshipment facilities in Murmansk and the Kamchatka Peninsula. The realization of these projects, which are closely related to the development of Arctic Ocean shipping routes, will greatly expand the scope of Japan-Russia economic cooperation.

In addition, as the decarbonization of the economy becomes a global issue in relation to climate change, hydrogen is attracting attention as a carbon-neutral energy resource. Talks among Rosatom, Gazprom, the Japanese government, and Japanese companies on Russia exporting hydrogen to Asia have already begun, and could open up new horizons for Japan-Russia economic cooperation.

In the security arena, in January 2020, Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force and the Russian Navy’s Baltic Fleet conducted joint anti-piracy drills in the Arabian Sea in the northern Indian Ocean. Such confidence-building operations between the militaries should be continued.

Finally, in recent years, there have been moves to explore the possibility of trilateral cooperation, including with India, with which both Japan and Russia have maintained good relations. Specifically, the first online meeting of the First Track-II Dialogue on India-Japan-Russia Trilateral Cooperation in the Russian Far East was held on January 20, 2021, and is worthy of attention as another possible stage for strengthening Japan-Russia relations.

  • Taisuke Abiru