What really happened at the Russia-Japan “no-tie” summit in Nagato

President Putin’s long-awaited visit to Japan did not appear rife with sensationalist headlines but it augurs well for the long term.
Opinion
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe watch a demonstration during their visit at Kodokan judo hall in Tokyo, Japan. Source: Reuters

After a two-day summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed to restore “2+2” consultations of foreign and defense ministers, executed a flurry of bilateral documents, saw businesses strike 68 deals, and signed off talks on possible joint economic activity on the disputed Southern Kuril Islands. 

Yet no tangible let alone “breakthrough”-like decisions transpired from a three-hour conversation on the disputed islands per se, keeping the expectations of both optimists and pessimists at bay.

It also suggested that both parties still prefer sticking to a gradual step-by-step approach over a rush to shell out quick deliverables on a sensitive issue. 

Hardening tone or soft landing?

In the chaotic media buzz that accompanied preparations to the Nagato meeting of Russian and Japanese leaders, one thing seemingly went unnoticed: on Nov. 30, 2016, President Putin signed the new edition of Russia’s foreign policy concept – a doctrinal document outlining the principles of Moscow’s conduct in international affairs. 

While according to the 2013 version of the doctrine, Russia was set to continue dialogue on the ways of resolving unsettled questions in a mutually beneficial fashion, any wording on the “unsettled questions” was absent from the 2016 document.

Instead, language on ensuring security and stability in the Asia-Pacific was added. Furthermore, during an interview with Japanese journalists in the lead up to his Japanese trip, Putin said that it was Tokyo, not Moscow that had an issue with territory.

The interpretation of this change may be ambivalent but also helpful in making sense of the Putin-Abe summit. Prima facie, one may just stop short of deducing a certain toughening of Russia’s position on the territorial dispute, viewing the change in tone and rhetoric as partially reminiscent of the Soviet position prior to Mikhail Gorbachev. 

For instance, the Japanese and international media noted the three-hour delay of Putin’s arrival to Yamaguchi Prefecture, hinting at it as a signal of toughness. Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida laughed off the interpretations of a delay as a diplomatic ruse. 

Moreover, an excessive focus on the Russian leader’s “tough guy” media image runs the risk of misconstruing his handling of the matter as that of Mr No. 

At the same time, regular observers and undoubtedly Japanese policy planners would be sufficiently aware of the regularity of this delay pattern both inside and outside Russia.

Instead of neglect, it may as well have been a move to shorten the overall discussion time and avoid potentially hasty decision-making. Or maybe, there was no hidden agenda behind the delayed arrival.

Moreover, an excessive focus on the Russian leader’s “tough guy” media image runs the risk of misconstruing his handling of the matter as that of Mr No.

In this case he may be more of a Mr Let’s See, exercising an adaptation to a – favorably – changing strategic environment, especially if the pre-summit position toughening is viewed as a part of a larger bargaining process, where any rationale for strong concessions from Russia has been weakening over the past year.

No isolation – no islands?

Much has been said in the media about the likelihood of a “thaw” in Russo-American relations after the election of Donald Trump as the new U.S. President. Recent events, such as the nomination of supposedly Russia-friendly Rex Tillerson to the office of Secretary of State, kept validating that expectation, although before any actual policy is defined after the inauguration, all such forward-looking statements are speculative.

The same goes for former French PM Francois Fillon’s win at the primaries for the 2017 presidential election. Still, all-in-all these trends indicate a possible sea-change in Russia’s strained ties with Western countries and, in turn, the fading of Japan’s opportunity – and related bargaining power – to benefit from this context.

Moreover, the mood may be slightly changing inside Japan as well. According to a November poll by the Mainichi newspaper, 57 percent of respondents support a flexible resolution of the territorial issue rather than intransigently demanding a transfer of all the disputed islands, favored by a “blocking-stake” minority of 25 percent. 

On the contrary, the public opinion in Russia has been viewed by a number of Japanese media outlets as staunchly opposed to territorial concessions, particularly sensitive as the country enters a preparatory period for the 2018 presidential campaign.

Whether as part of a bargaining preparation or not, the Japanese authorities officially did not rule out the possibility of applying the scope of the U.S.-Japan alliance to the Kuril Islands, which certainly did not dispel Moscow’s insecurities over a possible U.S. military base in the event of island handover. 

All-in-all, the above-described environment is hardly conducive to “quick-fix” concessions by the Kremlin. Yet, this should not indicate a stalemate over further progress.

After all, experts have often highlighted the complementarity of Russian and Japanese economies, and no country can be an island if it wants to benefit from global value chains.

The Russian leader kept reiterating the paramount importance of signing a peace treaty and, among other initiatives, proposed an eased travel regime for the inhabitants of Sakhalin and Hokkaido. 

The Japanese leader marked a contrast – yet again – with his predecessors by agreeing even to discuss the prospective joint economic activities on the Kurils, something that previous leaders avoided in principle. 

Most important, perhaps, will be the development of bilateral trade and investment cooperation. While an impressive number of deals were signed during the summit, trade volumes actually kept falling over the past couple of years and Japanese sanctions are still in place, however cosmetic. Although Japan is still the largest Asian investor in Russia, the bulk of these investments is represented by investments in Sakhalin ‘s oil and gas sector. 

Yet, it is the boost of functional cooperation across numerous industrial sectors that can increase the number and weight of stakeholders interested in solidifying a base further political normalization.

In Nagato and Tokyo, political ties between Russia and Japan were normalized to pre-2014 level, but a “newer normal” is needed for economic ties and functional cooperation, one that can positively reverberate and “spill over” into better political dialogue.

After all, experts have often highlighted the complementarity of Russian and Japanese economies, and no country can be an island if it wants to benefit from global value chains.

The writer is a doctoral candidate, at the faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, St. Catharine's College, University of Cambridge. He has been active in projects involving academics in Japan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. Views expressed are personal.

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