After over a year of deliberations, a team of Japanese officials and few business leaders finally visited the Russian-controlled Southern Kurils Islands on 27 June 2017. Japan calls them Northern Territories, but they have been under the control of Russia since World War II. The purpose of the visit was to explore the possibilities and modalities of joint economic activities on the islands by both Russia and Japan. Even though the five-day visit is claimed to be “a big step towards resolving the territorial issue” between Japan and Russia, a remarkably cold response from the latter makes it difficult to anticipate any substantial breakthrough on the issue in the near future. Moreover, the change in the regional power equations has also made it less likely that Russia would be still eager to cooperate with Japan as it promised earlier.
This has been one of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ambitious projects, part of his policy of rapprochement towards Russia. In May 2016, Abe announced this policy, called the New Approach to Russia, and said that Japan would like to resolve territorial disputes with it by utilising two mechanisms: economic cooperation and frequent high-level diplomatic exchanges. This policy is based on the premise that economic benefits to Russia would be able to buy territorial concessions for Japan.
However, it seems that political and other security variables were not taken into consideration in the formulations of this optimistic policy.
The potential economic benefits to Russia through cooperation with Japan cannot be denied. It was this reason that compelled Russian President Vladimir Putin to respond positively to Japan’s proposal last year. In December 2016, Putin visited Tokyo and agreed to undertake joint economic projects for the Kurils Islands after joint surveys and studies. He also agreed that these joint projects should be operated under a ‘special legal framework’. However, it was naïve on Japan’s part to believe that Russia would pursue its economic benefits devoid of security and strategic interests.
From the very beginning, both parties have different perspectives about the deal. Russia considered this purely as an economic deal, which would not dilute its claim over the islands. But Japan publicised Putin’s agreement about the ‘special legal framework’ as Russia’s indirect admission that these islands did not come under its legal framework. It was, thus, perceived as a sign of Russia’s compromise on the issue of its sovereignty. This deal has not progressed well because of these fundamental differences in their respective perspectives. An initial survey was originally planned to be conducted in May 2017, but it was postponed by Russia.
Japan sent a special envoy to Russia and finally the survey dates were scheduled for late June 2017.
Furthermore, in the past few months, there have been other adverse developments, connected to the different perspectives of the two countries. In recent times, a Russian research vessel was found to be operating in Japan’s exclusive economic zone and a Japanese lecturer was caught by Russian customs authority carrying Japanese language teaching material to the disputed islands. All these developments show that political and security considerations, which are the backbone of the bilateral differences to the proposed deal, are going to make it difficult for Japan’s ‘New Approach’ to Russia to succeed.
Constant changes in the US-China contestations in the region have also made Russia more reluctant to concede any potential advantage to Japan. US President Donald Trump's administration appears to be unhappy with North Korea’s persistent belligerent behaviour, and is ready to enhance security cooperation with Japan, which is unacceptable to Russia.
On 1 June 2017, Putin underlined the importance of the islands, claiming that their transfer or even common use with Japan might lead to these islands being used for missile defence systems. Although, he did not name the US, his indication was quite clear. On 15 June 2017, the Russian embassy in Tokyo issued an appeal to Japan not to join the US missile defence system. Russia appears to be worried about Japan moving closer to the US in the context of the US-China contestations, which would not be conducive to Russia's national interests.
Overall, it seems that Shinzo Abe’s ‘New Approach’ to Russia is unlikely to help in resolving territorial disputes with Russia on the Kuril Islands. Even though the initial survey has begun, given the different priorities of the two countries and broader geopolitical factors, the prospects of the 'New Approach' do not look positive.