A deal too far?
A deal too far?

Both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin have surprised the pundits before. But given how both sides have tamped down expectations prior to their meeting on Thursday a resolution of the Northern Territories dispute, or even much concrete progress, seems unlikely.

Ultimately, the meeting is a low-risk affair for both leaders. Abe in particular has an approval rating of around 60% – compared to most of his recent predecessors who struggled to maintain much lower double-digit support rates after a year or two in office, if they lasted that long. And he has established a nascent relationship with US president-elect Donald Trump that has earned some popular approval.

As importantly, few Japanese expect Abe to produce results with the Russians. Except for a dwindling number of former residents and the extreme right-wing, the Northern Territories — occupied by the then Soviet Union at the end of World War II — are not as “visceral” a territory dispute for most Japanese, as are the Senkaku Islands with China, and Takeshima Island with South Korea.

Opinion polls indicate a sizable majority of Japanese might even accept a deal for returning less than all four of the Russian-held islands that comprise the Northern Territories.

A similar compromise whereby Japan yields on control or claim to the Senkakus or Takeshima is practically unthinkable.

For reasons an anthropologist might best explain, Russians are simply perceived as less threatening and less anti-Japanese than are the Chinese and Koreans. A former senior Japanese defense official noted the popular image of Russians is that of “charming figure skating ladies.”

Putin himself has been to Tokyo several times, to include low-profile visits with his family and is a judo aficionado.

And even in quarters less charmed by the Russians there’s a sense that one shouldn’t expect thieves to give back what they’ve stolen – so no reason to blame Abe. Despite these limited expectations, the visit raises some issues worth considering.

Is Japan hedging its bets over concern of flagging US commitment?

Probably not. Whatever skepticism Japan has over America’s defense commitment, signing a final peace treaty with Russia and getting back the Northern Territories has been a longstanding objective of successive Japanese governments. It appears almost as a “stand alone” issue from the larger Japan-US defense and political relationship that underwrites Japan’s defense and is important for bolstering the US presence in Asia.

However, Abe’s willingness to engage with Putin despite US and Western sanctions and shunning over Russia’s seizure of Crimea, its efforts to carve off parts of eastern Ukraine, and shooting down the civilian Malaysian airliner, MH17, is further reminder that Japan always does what it sees as in its own interests – and has never slavishly followed American direction.

One note of caution: Should Japan someday agree to a Northern Territories settlement as some observers have suggested that excludes any returned territory from coverage under the US-Japan defense alliance, that would be unhelpful from a US-Japan alliance perspective given how small things can fester.

Chipping at Russia-China ties

Engaging with Putin is also partly an effort to counter Sino-Russian ties that pose an explicit threat to Japan by virtue of the strategic geography in northeast Asia. Tokyo is worried about deepened defense ties between Russia and China in recent years, to include sales of sophisticated weapons and increasingly complex bilateral naval and ground combat exercises and maneuvers in northeast Asia – and even as far afield as the Mediterranean.

Although Japan is unlikely to completely pry Russia away from China, Russia’s relationship with the Chinese is thinner than it sometimes appears.

Besides historic territorial frictions between Moscow and Beijing in the Russian Far East, one notes the paradox of Russia’s ongoing defense assistance to its Chinese neighbors against its sale of submarines and advanced air defense systems to Vietnam and being a major, longstanding defense supplier to India, as well as selling jet fighters and other arms to Indonesia.

On the economic front, the idea of offering the Russians a deal it can’t refuse for the Northern Territories in the form of Japanese financial support and investment in Russia’s underdeveloped Far East has been floating around for many years.

Russia is yet to name a price, that presumably would be steep, but it might someday see Japanese investment in the Russian Far East as preferable to overreliance on Chinese investment – and running the risk of losing territory almost by osmosis. For now, Russia appears willing to court the Japanese, even if a deal is not reached anytime soon.

Ultimately, Abe’s efforts to somehow cut a deal with Putin don’t symbolize a shift away from reliance on and alignment with the US.

Abe is reportedly not fixated on reaching a deal at any cost, but would not mind being the Prime Minister who finally and formally “ends the war” with Russia and resolves the Northern Territories issue – as none of his predecessors have managed to do.

Some observers note that despite the current focus on Putin, Abe’s main objective is to remain in office as prime minister and ultimately amend the “American-imposed” Constitution, particularly the war-renouncing Article 9.

Even if the Abe-Putin meeting comes and goes without notable results, some observers who’ve dealt with Japanese officialdom on bilateral matters might be forgiven for enjoying the schadenfreude watching Japanese negotiators deal with an equally stubborn opponent who feels little need to reach an agreement and will not be easily worn down into making concessions.