Relations between Russia and Japan are not all blue skies: the dispute over the Kuril Islands has hung over them like a dark cloud for many decades now, which is why two countries never signed a peace treaty after World War II.
The most recent minor flare-up in tensions was in January 2020 in response to Japan’s National Museum of Territory and Sovereignty Special Exhibition, which was reopened in Tokyo with the support from the authorities and displayed exhibits designed to prove that the disputed islands belong to Japan. At the time, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that the exhibition is an obstacle to the creation of a working atmosphere around the issue of the Kuril Islands, and shows that Tokyo is unwilling to accept the results of World War II and maintain good relations with Moscow.
Apart from Russia and Japan’s direct bilateral disagreements, Russia’s relations with Japan’s main ally the United States play a role, and make Japan-Russia relations more complicated.
Nevertheless, the close geographical proximity of these two neighbors and the fact that Japan and Russia are such influential countries means they are forced to look for ways to coexist in harmony for the sake of mutually beneficial cooperation and stability in the region. Much is already being done to this aim.
For instance, the Russian Federation and Japan are engaged in a 2+2 security dialog, which the foreign ministers and defense ministers of both countries participate in. Russian and Japanese law enforcement agencies cooperate with each other. Since 2012, Russian and Japanese law enforcement agencies have been working together to tackle Afghan drug trafficking under the auspices of the UN. Their cooperation began with the construction of a training center for the Afghan National Police (ANP) on Russian territory with Japanese funding. In 2017, there was news of a new canine (K9) capacity that Russian and Japan were planning to build for police officers to train dogs in Afghanistan. Japan was going to provide the funding again, and Russia was going to be the donor that provided specialists with technical support, drawing on its vast and diverse experience in combating drug trafficking and other offenses. After a meeting with Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs Toshimitsu Motegi who arrived in Moscow in December 2019, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the media that Russia and Japan intend to continue working together to fight drug trafficking, and also intend to work together to fight terrorism which is common concern.
Head of the Japanese Cabinet’s Intelligence and Research Office Shigeru Kitamura visited Russia in January 2020 to meet with Vladimir Putin and his Russian counterpart, Secretary of the Security Council of Russia Nikolai Patrushev. Expert observers analyzing relations between Russia Japan saw this as a very positive sign.
However, the relationship between the Russian and Japanese leaders is even more important for assessing the prospects for relations between the two countries, which can be described as rather active. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met three times in 2019: when the Japanese Prime Minister visited Moscow in January, at the G20 summit in Osaka, and during the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF), which was held in September 2019 in Vladivostok (Russia).
At the EEF, the two leaders engaged in an active discussion on a bilateral peace treaty. Russian President Vladimir Putin reminded President Abe that signing a post-war treaty is not only a matter of bilateral concern for Russia and Japan, but it is also connected with the interests of third countries, including interests related to security issues. For this reason, Russia is determined to secure a peace treaty in spite of the difficulties involved. In response, Shinzo Abe said that his country also intends to move in the same direction, that Russia and Japan can no longer afford to delay, and that he believes signing a peace treaty is the historical mission that Japan and Russia now need to fulfill.
Considering these types of statements being made by the Russian and Japanese leaders, many experts describe the current trends in relations between Russia and Japan as constructive and promising.
A statement made by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in February 2020 is of particular interest, when he said that he may visit Moscow to celebrate Victory Day on May 9, 2020. If this visit does take place, it may rightly be heralded a new milestone in relations between the two countries.
Perhaps the most important achievement in modern relations between Russia and Japan has been Russia’s hydrocarbon energy exports to Japan. Japan does not have any significant mineral reserves of its own, so it needs to import a huge amount of fuel to support the country’s economy. Many countries export fuel to Japan, including Saudi Arabia, Australia, and the United States. Russia is also one of its suppliers. Over the past decade, Russia has established its own domestic liquefied natural gas (LNG) production, which is rapidly growing in popularity on the global fuel market. The Land of the Rising Sun is one of the largest consumers of this product, and the close geographical proximity of the Russian LNG production centers makes it quite cost-effective for Japan to source its supply from Russia.
Japanese companies were involved in the construction of Russia’s first LNG plant on Sakhalin Island (Russia), and now continue to play a role in further exploration and in the development of fields on this oil- and gas-rich island. Accordingly, a significant share of LNG produced on Sakhalin Island is exported to Japan. A percentage of the LNG delivered to Japan also comes from the Russian Yamal LNG plant located on the Yamal Peninsula (Russia). All this has helped Russia become the forth largest exporter of LNG to Japan in 2018.
The Japanese companies Mitsui Bussan and JOGMEC are currently working together on the new Arctic LNG 2 project in Yamal with the Russian company NOVATEK, which may see the supply of Russian LNG to Japan increase by 2 million tons per year in the next few years.
In December 2019, the Japanese companies Marubeni-Itochu and Japan Petroleum Exploration Co., Ltd. (JAPEX), made a joint announcement together with the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry that they are planning to participate in the construction of a second LNG plant on Sakhalin Island, as well as an LNG transshipment terminal on the Kamchatka Peninsula, which will make shipping of LNG from Yamal far easier.
Thus, the conclusion we can draw is that although the dispute over the Kuril Islands has not gone away, Russia and Japan are already being brought together through serious economic cooperation, which is gradually developing and will facilitate the development of political interaction. By the looks of it, even if the dispute over Kuril Island is not settled in the near future, relations between Russia and Japan will remain smooth, developing at a steady pace, and while this is happening, the dispute over the islands will be “put on the back burner”, where it has been for the past half century.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook“.