Members of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces' infantry unit stand to attention. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-hoon
Members of Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces' infantry unit stand to attention. Photo: Reuters/Kim Kyung-hoon

The common practice in inter-state diplomacy is to hype up forthcoming high-level visits by dignitaries to foreign capitals. President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Japan is due to take place on December 15 and the general expectation is that it will be a historic milestone in Russo-Japanese relations and a defining moment in the politics of the Asia-Pacific region.

Prima facie, therefore, the arrival of the influential Kremlin politician and speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament, Valentina Matvienko in Tokyo on Tuesday appeared to fall in place.

Indeed, it is unusual in itself that two top figures in the Russian leadership are undertaking visits to the same foreign capital, Tokyo, within the space of mere six weeks.

Abnormal situation

Then something most unusual happened. On the eve of Matvienko’s arrival in Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, while taking part in a debate in the parliament on Monday poured cold water on any prospect of Japan plowing an independent course toward Russia that eroded its commitments as a G7 member and close ally of the United States.

Abe said, “As a G7 member, Japan will maintain economic sanctions against Russia which were introduced regarding the Ukrainian and Crimean problems.” In a crisp sentence, he all but highlighted Japan’s solidarity with the US as regards the overall approach pursued by the West to Putin’s Russia.

Abe said, nonetheless, “We believe that developing economic ties with Russia is beneficial not only for Russia but for Japan as well.” Japan and Russia “had been facing an abnormal situation for over 70 years that needed to be solved,” referring to the absence of a peace treaty and also the problem of the ‘Northern Territories’ as Japan refers to Russia’s Southern Kuril Islands.

Abe’s remarks poignantly sum up Tokyo’s policy dilemma toward Russia. Japan feels isolation in its region, is deeply concerned that China is assertive, and will do exceptionally well by ‘normalizing’ with Russia, a dormant regional player which aspires to be a ‘balancer’ in the politics of the Asia-Pacific.

But Japan also cannot abandon its alliance with the US – or its cherished dream of regaining control of the Kurile Islands as pre-requisite for concluding a peace treaty with Russia formally ending their World War II hostility (in the absence of which Tokyo cannot venture into a full-fledged relationship with Moscow.)

Moscow sees things very differently. Only last Friday, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Anatoly Antonov conveyed to the Japanese ambassador in Moscow Toyohisa Kozuki Russia’s concern over the deployment of US missile shield segments in the Asia-Pacific region and “Japan’s participation in this process.”

Putin too in reply to a question by a Japanese journalist during the recent G20 summit in Hangzhou in September, took note of Japan’s special relations with the US and Tokyo’s propensity to toe the American line in its foreign policies. Given this geopolitical reality, Putin pointed out the futility of looking for ‘red lines’ to conclude a Russia-Japan peace treaty.

Putin stressed that “creating favorable conditions is extremely important for the settlement of any issues, including the signing of a peace treaty.” He cited the analogy of the Sino-Russian entente: “We were engaged with China in negotiations on border issues for 40 years, and we managed to settle them. And on what basis? On the basis of a very high level of mutual trust and cooperation we had achieved by the moment of signing these agreements (in 1996).”

But then, things are much more complicated than that. Is the US-Japan alliance the stumbling block or is it the Kuriles dispute? Perhaps, they are two sides of the same coin.

In a surprisingly frank statement, Russia’s foreign ministry spokesperson put the cards on the table on October 5: “Our position on this issue remains consistent and unchanged: the South Kurile Islands belong to the Russian Federation as a result of World War II. Russian sovereignty over them is beyond doubt…  Japan’s recognition of the realities… that emerged as a result of World War II is a mandatory condition for progress towards concluding a peace treaty.”

A reality check

Again, Putin remarked on October 27 that “it is impossible, even harmful to determine any time limits” for the signing of a peace treaty between Russia and China.

A week after Putin spoke, Abe has decided to make the remarks in the Diet in Tokyo explicitly ruling out the removal of sanctions against Russia.

In sum, Matvienko’s current visit to Japan can be put in perspective. The Kremlin used her visit – Matvienko used to be a career diplomat – to give ‘reality check’ to the Japanese elites who have contrived to stir up hype over Putin’s forthcoming visit.

Matvienko indeed started running the moment she hit the ground in Tokyo.  She told Japanese reporters on Tuesday that Russia’s sovereignty over Kuriles is simply non-negotiable. On Wednesday, however, she reiterated Moscow’s hope that Tokyo nonetheless will lift its economic sanctions against Russia, which account for the “negative dynamic” of Russia-Japan trade and economic ties.

To be sure, Tokyo has been stung to the quick. The Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) has since announced in Tokyo that it has extended restrictions on independent financing to Russian companies and financial institutions.

The JBI statement stressed that the restrictions are aimed at avoiding contravening US and EU sanctions against Moscow. The bank also said it proposes to withdraw financing projects from which EU and US companies had pulled out due to sanctions.

Furthermore, the state lender plans to pressure private sector banks in order to stop funding of sanctioned Russian borrowers.

Suffice it to say, the bottom line is that Abe, albeit a Japanese nationalist who is passionately keen about normalization of relations with Russia, will not barter away Japan’s alliance with the US for a few pieces of silver in the Russian market for oil and gas.

To be fair to the Russian side, they would have anticipated it, too. Interestingly, a prominent Russian pundit specializing on the geopolitics of the Far East wrote in an Australian journal last week:

If Russia and China continue to foster their strategic relationship, the next major step could well be a Russian military presence in China, reciprocated by Chinese deployments on Russian soil. In a few years we may be talking… about the prospect of a Russian naval facility on Hainan or a Chinese base on the Kuril Islands.

The good part about Matvienko’s 4-day mission to Tokyo so far has been that there is no strategic ambiguity remaining anymore about the backdrop to Putin’s forthcoming visit to Japan in mid-December.

M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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