Japan’s Difficult Choices in Navigating Its Ties with Russia

Despite the souring of Japan-Russia relations following the Ukrainian crisis, there are growing signs that Russian President Putin could visit Japan later this year, notes Tokyo Foundation President Masahiro Akiyama in an article originally published by the Valdai Discussion Club . Japan has an interest in economic cooperation with Russia, including in the energy sector, which could make a contribution to the development of Russia’s Far East, Eastern Siberia, and the Arctic Ocean.

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Sergey Naryshkin, chairman of the Russian State Duma, visited Japan last month—this was his second visit to this country in a year.

The surprising aspect of this year’s visit was the high profile of the people he met. He paid a courtesy call on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and met with many other political leaders during his stay, although the stated purpose of his visit was to attend a Russian Cultural Festival in Tokyo.

The talks are believed to have produced an agreement to push forward the Japan-Russia relationship despite the current severe situation. So I think we are going to see President Vladimir Putin visiting Japan later this year.

Since Prime Minister Abe returned to office three years ago, he has met President Putin seven times. This is quite rare in the history of our two countries’ relationship. In fact, he met Putin twice even after the Ukrainian crisis. A sense of mutual trust has grown up between them, and this could help resolve the difficult issues between our two countries. As a related point, we should not forget that former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who is Abe’s political patron, is also very close to President Putin, as the two men share an enthusiasm for sports.

The Ukrainian crisis occurred at a bad time for Japan, which was just about to kick off a new round of what appeared to be constructive negotiations with Russia over the territorial issue with the ultimate goal of concluding a peace treaty. Japan is not taking an anti-Russian stance just because of US pressure; its decision is based on a desire to maintain solidarity with major European and North American countries as a member of the G7. Still, Japan was reluctant to impose severe sanctions on Russia, and so they may not be effective as those imposed by other countries.

Resolving the Northern Territories dispute remains Japan’s top priority in restoring normal relations with Russia and in strengthening the bilateral political and economic relationship. Japan may need to be more flexible, as it seems impossible to resolve the dispute as long as Japan insists on the return of all four islands as a package. I believe a solution can be found on which both countries can agree if the two leaders draw on their strong mutual trust to push forward the negotiation process.

Japan has a keen interest in economic cooperation with Russia, including in the energy sector, which could make a positive contribution to the development of Russia’s Far East, Eastern Siberia, and the Arctic Ocean. Some economic cooperation projects have been stalled due to the economic sanctions imposed after the Ukraine crisis and the sharp drop in oil prices since last November. Still, we have seen positive developments in the agriculture and medical sectors, even after the crisis. I am confident that investment and business will recover gradually, as neither the West nor Russia want the relationships to deteriorate any further, as long as at least the ceasefire part of the Minsk-2 agreement holds. The United States, I am sure, is not interested in starting a new Cold War.

Japan’s official attitude toward Russia has remained largely unchanged since the crisis, although the country was forced to make a politically difficult choice between its desire to promote Japan-Russia relations and to maintain solidarity with the G7 by taking a tough stance against Russia.

The dialogue between the Tokyo Foundation and the Russian International Affairs Council were held as scheduled last autumn, even when our bilateral relations soured following the Ukrainian crisis, and we publicly issued a joint statement to promote friendly ties. Communication and exchange at the unofficial level are therefore continuing as before. This suggests that Track 2 dialogue may become more important under the current political situation.

Reprinted with permission from the website of the Valdai Discussion Club .

Masahiro Akiyama

  • President (2012–2016)