American Interest

Japan and Russia Gear Up for High-Stakes Talks

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship

Japan and Russia are laying the groundwork for a major summit next month, at which Vladimir Putin and Shinzo Abe will discuss a host of economic projects and an unresolved territorial dispute. Financial Times explains:

Japan and Russia are discussing almost 100 economic co-operation projects as they prepare to negotiate over four disputed islands at a high stakes summit in December.[…]

The intensity of discussions shows the weight prime minister Shinzo Abe is putting on his latest effort to resolve the long-running dispute over a group of islands Russia calls the Kuriles and Japan the Northern Territories.

But it also raises the risk of a post-summit backlash in Japan if there is no progress on the islands. Last week, a Russian parliamentarian visiting Tokyo said there is “no discussion going on at all on things like the handover of the islands”.

Mr Abe’s new approach to Russia—launched at a Sochi summit with president Vladimir Putin in May—is aimed at building a broader relationship with Moscow to ease negotiations on the islands.

Russia’s negotiations with Japan over economic issues and the islands present a real opportunity. If Russia and Japan made a deal over the islands and signed a peace treaty (which they never did after 1945), the impact would be felt by all players in Asia's Game of Thrones. It isn't clear that Putin is going in that direction, or that Japan is willing to cut a deal on the islands that would be acceptable to Russia. Still, after a long but expensive run of international victories, Putin does seem to be seriously considering concessions to Japan as an option.

There are signs that Putin might want to consolidate his gains rather than pressing forward indefinitely. He has talked about his desire for normalization with the US, and he is currently presiding over large budget cuts, possible even touching defense. Putin is a tactical player and knows he's got problems. Russia remains a poor country dependent on oil, whose price has fallen dramatically. When it comes to foreign adventurism, at some point Putin benefits by cashing in his chips rather than by continuing to gamble for more.

Now that Europe is largely in check and neither NATO nor the European Union will be making major expansions any time soon, Putin's biggest issues are Sunni terror (which he's counting on Iran and Syria to help him with) and China, which remains the most important long-term threat to Russia's integrity and stature. If the US accepts the fait accompli in Syria and doesn't initiate a major push on Ukraine—the easiest and most likely course for the next administration—then Putin's concerns dovetail more closely with the US and Japan: namely, balancing China in Asia. Rapprochement with Japan could certainly help that cause.

Repairing relations with Japan could also buy Putin some goodwill with what will likely be a more resolute and purposeful US government. Obama was a naive ditherer who specialized in giving Putin easy wins, but Clinton—who is strongly favored over the inept bumbler Putin clearly prefers—is much tougher and smarter on foreign policy. All this suggests that China, which is the strongest of the three revisionists out to reshape the US-based world order, is more likely than Russia to provide the next President with an early, tough test.