2017 apparently began rather auspiciously for the ongoing Russo-Japanese rapprochement. At the beginning of the year the parties attempted to pick up exactly where they left off after the “hot spring diplomacy” in Nagato, and held the first round of negotiations on possible joint economic activities on the Kuril Islands. The talks were reportedly held in a cordial atmosphere.
The latest commemoration of the Northern Territories Day in Japan, usually held on Feb. 7, had a new flavor. This year, its traditional elements – a gathering of the former inhabitants of the islands and a concurrent right-wing protest near the Russian Embassy in Tokyo – were accompanied by the inauguration of a special panel established by the Japanese government as a task force in charge of discussing joint economic activities with Russia on the islands.
It is not only the panel’s institutional value but also its high-ranking makeup that are worth noting. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida chairs the panel to expedite preparations for official talks with Russia planned in Tokyo in March.
The acting chair of the panel is expected to be Minister for Economic Cooperation with Russia Hiroshige Seko, with Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami as deputy chair.
General support to the panel will be reportedly provided by Shotaro Yachi, one of Prime Minister Abe’s key foreign policy advisors and head of the secretariat of the National Security Council; as well as Deputy Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba and Eiichi Hasegawa, special adviser to the prime minister.
The panel initiative followed the January reshuffle of ‘relationship managers’ on the Japanese side by Prime Minister Abe and the first round of talks between deputy foreign ministers. Akiba replaced Chikahito Harada as “handler” of foreign ministry-level talks.
According to unattributed sources of the Russian media, a possible reason for Harada’s removal was the fact that he had a strained relationship with his Russian counterpart Igor Morgulov.
In this light, Akiba’s appointment may have also suggested that the Japanese side maintains a strong commitment to resolving the Kuril dispute in the aftermath of the December summit in Nagato.
Furthermore, another rotation took place inside the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with Yasushi Masaki’s appointment as the new head of the European Affairs Bureau and Tadaatsu Mori in charge of its Russian Division.
Masaki’s experience includes work on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and other economic matters, including international treaties, suggesting a solid negotiation experience with China.
As for Mori, apart from his diplomatic track record with Russia, the new head of the Russian Division published a research paper back in 2011, reviewing the Russo-Chinese territorial settlement and making a case for an incremental approach in the Russo-Japanese territorial issue.
In 2004, Russia and China settled their border dispute with the former handing over Tarabarov Island and half of the Bolshoi Ussuriski Island on the Amur River to the latter.
An incremental approach, according to Mori, requires a sufficient level of mutual trust, while pragmatism is key to avoiding politicization and building confidence. This research finding appears to be in harmony with the current policy of the Japanese government.
The rotation inside the Foreign Ministry of Japan may also represent another hint that the Cabinet of Ministers, known as Kantei, wants to consolidate its influence over negotiations with Russia and make sure internal disagreements between politicians and bureaucrats do not get in the way, as they may have under the previous governments.
The U.S. part of Japan’s foreign policy equation has also been positive. Although Donald Trump’s backtracking on the Trans-Pacific Partnership dealt a blow to Tokyo’s perseverance to save the international trade deal, Abe’s February visit to the U.S. was rich in hard currency.
Firstly, the prime minister secured pledges about the validity of the U.S.-Japan alliance when it comes to Tokyo’s dispute with Beijing over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
Secondly, Japan and the U.S. established a regular dialogue between Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso and Vice President Mike Pence.
In short, post-election fears in Tokyo that Trump’s unpredictability will entail a need for “damage control” and relationship re-building on the Japanese side have not materialized so far. Nor has anything transpired in regard to Washington’s take on the Southern Kuril dispute. The desirable outcome for Japan would be to simply handle the normalization of ties with Russia without any pressure similar to what the country experienced during the Obama administration.
While both the international and Japanese political environment seems to be conducive for better ties between Moscow and Tokyo, the idea of joint economic ties on the Southern Kurils raises the most questions.
Let’s start with the law governing joint activities on the islands. Despite declarative willingness to work together, the positions of both sides remain polar opposites, as Russia wants the cooperation to work under the Russian law, while Japan does not agree with that.
Another uncertainty may lie in the recent developments on the disputed islands per se. On the one hand, the creation of the territories of advanced development regime in the Russian Far East included the Kurils and is expected to make the life of foreign investors easier.
On the other hand, the Russian equivalent of the Homestead Act, known as “the Far Eastern Hectare”, is likely to restrict the bargaining space over any possible compromise.
The program of free distribution of Far Eastern land to Russian citizens is proving quite popular so far and applications by individuals have already been made on the disputed islands as well.
Any hypothetical territorial handover would therefore risk a possible infringement of private property rights of not only the old settlers but the growing number of new ones as well.
This is not to say that a compromise is completely impossible, since Russian property authorities are expected to have overriding powers when it comes to projects considered to be of federal significance.
However, as it has been noted on numerous occasions, 2017 is a pre-election year in Russia and, in all likelihood, in Japan as well, and such a sensitive period is hardly encouraging bold compromises on either side.
Still, the Japanese leader is set to visit Russia in the first half of 2017 and possibly also during the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok in September.
In light of the above, he is likely to expect some tangible deliverables from those trips. Perhaps, one of those would be the facilitation of air travel to the Kurils for the former Japanese inhabitants of the island. The current visa-free regime is restricted to marine transportation.
Despite the roadblocks, Russia and Japan seem to be on the right track to establishing a pragmatic working relationship.