Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Moscow on April 28 for a three-day visit, during which he met with President Vladimir Putin. He planted a cherry tree at the Russian Academy of Sciences and listened to some drumming. Other outcomes of the summit meeting included signatures on documents about economic, cultural and foreign policy cooperation, as well as a decision to intensify the peace treaty negotiations. Abe called the joint statement by the two leaders “historic.”
Little has changed in the way Russia and Japan consult at the highest level — cherry trees, tatami mats, judo, islands, islands, islands, peace treaty. I should point out that some progress nevertheless was made towards improving intergovernment relations. Putin and Abe issued a joint statement calling the lack of a peace treaty 67 years after the end of World War II abnormal and expressed their determination to conclude one. However, if Russia and Japan have officially spent 67 years in limbo, they could easily continue doing so for another 167 years, breaking the record of the Hundred Years War with no casualties or property destruction.
A number of factors have brought the two countries a little closer together. First of all, Japan is interested in Russian gas because it is likely to completely eliminate its nuclear power industry. Second, the pressure it is under from China is giving the Land of the Rising Sun doubts about its security.
As far as its security is concerned, the situation here is very clear. If the 67 years of war with Russia are added to the claims against Japan from China and Korea (both North and South), with Taiwan joining in, the political configuration is very unfavorable for the Land of the Ever Blooming Cherry Tree. Japan’s patron, the United States, has a great many problems of its own — a shaky economy, Syria, Iran etc.
Nobuo Shimotomai, a professor at Hosei University and a highly respected Japanese expert on Russia, argues that Russia and Japan are concerned about the “poorly predictable superpower — China,” and that was one of the reasons for the summit. The professor somewhat overstates Russia’s concern and downplays Japan’s, but he is essentially right. Problems with China were one of the reasons Abe came to Moscow. That would be a more accurate way of putting it.
Japan’s Asian neighbors would not perceive concessions in its relations with Russia as a political defeat for Japan. Russia has no claims against Japan. On the contrary, Tokyo is the one keeping relations with Moscow tense. Rejection of claims for the Southern Kuril Islands would mean only that it rejects past imperialist ambitions. Yielding to China, which is exacerbating the Senkaku problem, would mean it is giving in to strong pressure, and Tokyo cannot let that happen.
Since Russia has recently energized its East Asian policy, a territorial exchange would be particularly unacceptable to it. It could “lose face.” An improvement in Japanese-Chinese relations in the near future is not in the cards, whereas improved Russian-Japanese relations are a distinct possibility. Tokyo is unlikely to paint itself into a geopolitical corner.
As far as Russian gas sales to Japan are concerned, Professor Shimotomai has said, “I think economic factors had a great deal to do with why the meeting is taking place now. The shale revolution has influenced Russia to shift its attention towards Asia, and after Fukushima Japan is very interested in Russian energy resources, especially its natural gas.”
Unfortunately, the professor’s assessment is not entirely accurate.
Russia has begun shifting its attention to East Asia because of the financial problems of the European Union, Russia’s main trading partner, not because of some “shale revolution.” Incidentally, those same problems are also haunting Japan. But not China. China’s desire to diversify its oil and gas imports and Russia’s desire to diversify its oil and gas exports are pushing China and Russia together. Clearly, relations between Beijing and Moscow can be considered nothing more than a “marriage of convenience,” but that kind of relationship is often very strong and long-lasting, whereas political “marriages for love” frequently end in divorce and scandal.
As far as the “shale revolution” is concerned, revolutions have been known to encounter a fierce reaction and end in brutal dictatorship. Energy trading is no exception to the rule.
What is it all about?
The “shale revolution” is hogwash started by the Western media to put pressure on oil and gas exporters. The issue is very simple. The Western countries are experiencing an acute solvency crisis, and they are, first of all, trying to replace natural gas with some kind of alternative energy source and, second, bring down gas prices. Russia provides about 30% of the gas consumed by the European Union. Russia is controlled not by some Arab sheik, but by President Putin, the commander-in-chief of Russia’s armed forces. Washington cannot control him.
People in the West dislike Russia’s president because he was elected by the Russian people, is very democratic and, most importantly, Gazprom wants to keep gas prices as high as possible. That is the harsh reality of capitalism.
Sun Yongxiang, an official of China’s Institute of the State Council, has said: “It is difficult for shale gas to compete with traditional natural gas. While it is true that it can play a small supporting role in some areas of the world, globally it is unlikely to replace traditional natural gas, and that is true for China also. In my opinion, shale gas has no future in either the short or the midterm. Especially since its production entails serious environmental risks.”
It is worth noting that this comes from a Chinese professor, and China, unlike the United States, has no solvency problems.
So, on to what is most important.
Putin has said that Russia can meet Japan’s growing energy needs: “This could be joint hydrocarbon production and joint construction of a liquefied natural gas plant. Gazprom is ready to invest its resources in new capacity for gas reception on the territory of Japan, invest in gas pipeline systems and we are ready to consider building additional electric power capacity in Russia for subsequent supply to Japan.”
According to experts interviewed by RIA Novosti, economic cooperation can shift the territorial dispute between Russia and China into the background. Elgen Molodyakov, Deputy Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies, believes that “increased economic cooperation is simply the only way to resolve the territorial dispute.”
The most realistic option for developing relations between Russia and Japan is to expand economic cooperation against a backdrop of moderate appeals to return the “northern territories.” In other words, Tokyo will not give up its territorial claims against Russia, but it will make them without hysteria or fanaticism.
Konstantin Alexandrovich Penzev is an author and historian and a columnist for New Eastern Outlook.