In his last telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin before leaving office last year, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke warmly of his friendship with the Russian president. In turn, Putin praised the “great contribution” Abe had made to the development of Russo-Japanese relations.

As a rule, the leaders of countries that have not managed to sign a peace treaty for three-quarters of a century don’t exchange such warm parting sentiments. Although even the personal friendship between the two leaders was not enough to secure a peace treaty or resolve the countries’ territorial dispute, Russo-Japanese relations certainly progressed to an unprecedented level during Abe’s tenure.

In keeping with his predecessor’s policies, new Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has expressed a wish to pursue the comprehensive development of Russo-Japanese ties, including the signing of a peace treaty. Still, it’s already clear that we should not expect a repeat of such close cooperation or notable breakthroughs in relations between the two countries. They will move along their routine course, regardless of the intentions of the current or any subsequent Japanese prime minister.

To understand future relations between Russia and Japan, it’s helpful to compare them with Japan’s relations with other neighbors: South Korea and China. In contrast to Japan’s tumultuous relations with those countries, Russo-Japanese interactions are relatively calm. The last noticeable conflict was over then president Dmitry Medvedev’s 2010 visit to the islands contested by Russia and Japan, which resulted in the recall of the Japanese ambassador from Moscow. Thereafter, relations between the two countries improved and remained steady.

The same cannot be said about relations between Tokyo and Beijing, which went from seeing anti-Japanese demonstrations in China in 2012 to declarations of partnership in 2018. Traditionally lukewarm Japanese-Korean relations, meanwhile, are currently facing the deepest crisis in fifty years. Compared to them, contacts between Moscow and Tokyo are a model of stability.

There is, however, the issue of the territorial dispute over the islands known in Russia as the South Kuril Islands, and in Japan as the Northern Territories. Strictly speaking, Japan has similar disagreements with all of its neighbors, including Taiwan and North Korea, with which it has no diplomatic relations. Japan contests the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands with China and Taiwan, and Takeshima (Dokdo) Islands with North and South Korea.

But the Russo-Japanese dispute is distinct in several ways. First, Russia is the only one of Japan’s neighbors to engage in any negotiations on the status of disputed territories. Second, the dispute with Russia lacks the displays of open hostility triggered by the parties’ unilateral moves in Japan’s disputes with China and South Korea. Third and most importantly, it’s only with Russia that the territorial dispute plays a central role in bilateral relations: the Senkaku (Diaoyu) and Takeshima (Dokdo) problems are much more peripheral.

Russo-Japanese ties are also much smaller in scope than Japan’s interactions with South Korea and China. Despite all the tensions between Tokyo and Seoul, in his last policy speech to parliament in January 2020, Abe described South Korea as a “crucially important neighbor that shares fundamental values and strategic interests with Japan.” As for relations with China, Abe underscored their exceptional importance in both a regional and local context and expressed a wish to turn a new page in bilateral cooperation. Russia, however, was referred to in this address—as in previous ones—only in connection with the territorial dispute.

Economic numbers clearly highlight this difference in the scope of cooperation. According to 2019 data from the Japan External Trade Organization, trade between Japan and Russia amounted to approximately $21.5 billion, compared with $76 billion for South Korea and $304 billion for China. Russia is not among Japan’s largest trade partners, trailing even Hong Kong.

These aspects—stability, focus on the territorial dispute, and limited scope of cooperation—intertwine and amplify each other, creating a fairly simple and solid framework for Russo-Japanese relations. Paradoxically, it’s the territorial dispute that remains their key stabilizing element, which has both positive and negative ramifications.

On the one hand, the contested islands eclipse other less significant disagreements. In seeking to resolve the territorial dispute, Japan is trying not to create additional tension in its relations with Russia.

On the other hand, the territorial dispute stops the parties from taking on less ambitious projects, even in areas where they could reach a new level of cooperation (for instance, when it comes to the economic development of the contested islands). It became acutely obvious how deeply the countries were stuck in this rut when Abe tried to get them out of it.

The Russo-Japanese rapprochement dates back to Abe’s visit to Moscow in April 2013, but it only translated into something more or less tangible three years later. During his visit to the Russian resort of Sochi in May 2016, the Japanese prime minister announced a “new approach” to the territorial problem and unveiled the first draft of his economic cooperation plan.

The plan focused on eight spheres—healthcare, urban planning, energy, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation infrastructure, technological development, and small and medium-sized business—as well as humanitarian contacts. The Japanese cabinet also acquired a minister charged with economic cooperation with Russia.

By the end of 2019, close contacts between Russia and Japan had spawned over 200 projects, most of which are being actively implemented and are quite useful. However, the vast majority of them are very small, with the notable exception of several energy projects, such as Yamal LNG and Arctic LNG 2. A recent Japanese report on economic cooperation with Russia included mentions of the Matsuya restaurant opened in Moscow in June 2019, and a collection of low-sodium food recipes published in Russian.

No major breakthroughs have been made, and for the most part, the numbers fail to reflect Abe’s efforts. The modest trade between the two countries peaked in 2014, while Japanese exports to Russia were at their highest back in 2008. Japanese capital investments in the Russian economy aren’t faring much better: they reached their apex eight years ago, very early in Abe’s second term.

On the political front, the situation is similar. On the one hand, there have been many more bilateral contacts: the twenty-seven presidential summits that Putin and Abe held are a record that may never be broken. New channels of cooperation appeared: for instance, the “two plus two” format meetings between the countries’ defense and foreign ministers.

On the other hand, there has been no progress on the territorial dispute, despite the efforts and unprecedented concessions by Japan. In November 2018, Putin and Abe agreed to continue negotiating within the framework of the 1956 Moscow declaration that calls for ceding two of the four contested islands to Japan after the peace treaty is signed.

This major concession caused an uproar in the Japanese parliament. Opposition members demanded that the government answer the question of whether it considers all four of the islands part of Japan. To its own political detriment, the cabinet consistently avoided giving a direct answer in the hope of progressing during negotiations with Russia.

Despite all of Abe’s efforts, however, he failed to bring about significant changes on the issues of the territorial dispute and economic cooperation. Even if Suga continues with his predecessor’s policy of closer contacts with Russia, it’s not clear how he will be able to accomplish something that could not be done in the past seven years. And this negative past experience is not the only cause for pessimism.

In the first four months of his tenure, Suga’s government saw its approval rating plunge, which gives it much less room for maneuvering and casts serious doubt on the prime minister’s political future. Elections for the lower house of parliament as well as the head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party are scheduled to take place this fall. The lack of a breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic may ruin Suga’s chances of staying in power.

Even if he is replaced by someone more popular, the growing public skepticism toward Russia may thwart the rapid improvement of bilateral relations. An opinion poll commissioned by the government in February 2021 revealed that 73.9 percent of Japanese see their country’s relations with Russia in a negative light. In November 2016, that figure was 65.2 percent.

Another obstacle is the new U.S. administration, which appears to be more inclined to put pressure on Moscow than the previous one. In this sense, the four years of Donald Trump’s presidency afforded Japan and Russia a unique window of opportunity: Trump’s isolationist instincts gave U.S. allies far greater freedom to engage with other countries than Joe Biden’s substantially more mainstream views on the U.S. role in the world.

All of this does not, however, portend serious change for the worse. The stable framework of Russo-Japanese relations practically rules out radical changes for better or worse, which is its great advantage. It does, however, allow for progress, and Abe’s accomplishments—all reservations notwithstanding—clearly support this notion.

Two conclusions can be drawn from the events of recent years. First, we are unlikely to see a political or economic breakthrough in Russo-Japanese relations. Japan will not be trying to repeat Abe’s efforts to that end in the foreseeable future.

Second, bilateral relations could nevertheless grow naturally under minimally favorable conditions. A case in point is the simplified visa regime between the two countries. Before the pandemic, Russia’s Far Eastern city Vladivostok had become a popular destination for Japanese tourists as “the closest thing to Europe,” while visitors from Russia were one of the fastest-growing segments in Japan’s inbound tourism.

It remains to hope that the negative experiences won’t overshadow the positive, and the contribution the former prime minister made to the development of bilateral relations won’t be lost.

By:
  • Maxim Krylov