Where is Japan’s Russian policy headed? The lessons of the invasion of Ukraine

Citing Russia’s war on Ukraine and its continued occupation of Japan’s Northern Territories, a former ambassador to Moscow is calling on Tokyo to hold the line against Russian expansionism.

Relations between Japan and Russia have deteriorated dramatically since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine last February, and Russia’s continued aggression rules out the possibility of mending fences any time soon. Indeed, the expansionary impulse laid bare by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine must also be seen as a potential threat to East Asia. While maintaining our demands for the return of the Northern Territories, Japan must strengthen security cooperation with the United States and Europe and demonstrate that it will not tolerate any violation of its sovereignty or territorial integrity.

Japan and the invasion of Ukraine

On March 2 this year, the United Nations General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution condemning in the strongest terms the Russian invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24. Supported by 141 of the 193 UN member states, the resolution demanded that “the Russian Federation immediately cease its use of force against Ukraine” and that it “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all its military forces from territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders”.

In addition to backing the UN resolution, Japan has joined the United States and others in imposing tough economic sanctions on Russia. He restricted transactions with Russia’s central bank and froze the assets of President Vladimir Putin and other government figures. He also decided to ban or restrict imports of Russian machinery, wood and vodka. At the same time, Tokyo pledged $200 million in emergency humanitarian aid and $600 million in financial aid to Ukraine.

On March 21, citing Japan’s “hostile” position, Moscow announced that it was officially withdrawing from negotiations for a permanent bilateral peace treaty (see below). In early April, the Japanese government announced the expulsion of eight Russian diplomats, and Moscow responded accordingly later that month. In short, the Japan-Russia relationship is at its lowest point in decades and is unlikely to recover any time soon.

Moreover, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should be seen as a warning to East Asia and particularly to Japan, whose Northern Territories have been illegally occupied by the Russians since the end of the Second World War.

The question of the Northern Territories

The Northern Territories consist of four islands located north of Hokkaidō: Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and Habomai islets. These islands are an integral part of Japanese territory and have never belonged to any country other than Japan. They were seized by the Soviets at the end of World War II and have been illegally occupied ever since.

The Soviet Union entered the war against Japan on August 9, 1945, when Japan’s defeat was inevitable. Moreover, he did so in violation of the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact, which remained in effect at the time. On August 14, Japan announced its acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, signaling its capitulation. Nevertheless, the Soviet forces continued their advance until early September, by which time they had taken control of the four northern territories.

Although Tokyo and Moscow eventually normalized diplomatic relations under the Japan–Soviet Union Joint Declaration of 1956, a permanent peace treaty was never signed due to the unresolved dispute over the Northern Territories.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Moscow took a hard line, insisting that there was no territorial dispute to be resolved. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, there were signs of progress. In October 1993, Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed the Tokyo Declaration on Japan-Russia Relations, which expressly acknowledged the existence of the territorial issue surrounding Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habo people and pledged to pursue a resolution “based on historical and legal fact and on the basis of documents drawn up with the agreement of the two countries, as well as on the principles of law and justice”.

Japan has not wavered in its commitment to reach an agreement on the Northern Territories issue and to conclude a bilateral peace treaty in order to establish stable relations of genuine mutual trust with one of its closest neighbors. important, and to that end he persisted in his efforts to engage with the Russians. But negotiations have stalled, largely because Moscow, particularly under President Putin, has repeatedly twisted the facts and backtracked on previous commitments.

For example, during a meeting in Singapore on November 14, 2018, Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and President Putin, citing the mutual trust established over the previous two years under Abe’s “new approach” to of bilateral relations, agreed to “accelerate the negotiations on the peace treaty on the basis of the 1956 Declaration”. The news was greeted with great enthusiasm in Japan until Putin, speaking shortly afterwards, remarked that the 1956 declaration merely proposed transferring de facto control of Shikotan and the Habomais, not their real property. A few months later, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov dashed Japanese hopes by declaring that negotiations could only proceed on the premise that the four islands were Russian territory.

The delicate question of economic cooperation

In principle, cooperation in the economic sector should be encouraged, provided that it best serves the interests of Japanese businesses and the nation as a whole. But here, as with diplomatic negotiations, patience and deliberation are essential. When a party is too eager to achieve results, it can easily be lured into arrangements that run counter to its own interests.

With Russia in particular, we must proceed on the basis of a firm and consistent foreign policy and ensure that all negotiators and other Japanese government officials, including our expert advisers, are on the same page. Unless all aspects of our Russian policy, including economic cooperation, are carefully coordinated from the top down, it becomes too easy for Russia to pursue its own material interests independently of peace treaty negotiations.

At the same time, it is important that Tokyo avoids overtly dangling the prospect of economic cooperation as an incentive to make progress on the territorial dispute. This would inevitably provoke a reaction from the Russians, which would be counterproductive from Japan’s point of view.

A wake-up call for Japan

Territorial issues are at the very heart of national sovereignty. The Northern Territories, an integral part of Japanese territory, have been illegally occupied since the end of World War II, first by the Soviet Union and then by the Russian Federation. In the long term, Japan must continue to fight for a peace treaty based on a solution consistent with the unshakeable position that the four islands belong to Japan. But given our own experience, let alone the events surrounding the invasion of Ukraine, it would be an obvious mistake to view Vladimir Putin as a trustworthy negotiating partner.

From a security perspective, Japan should treat the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a warning signal. By word and deed, our government must send an unequivocal message to the nation and to the rest of the world that it will not tolerate any violation of its sovereignty or territorial integrity under any pretext whatsoever. To this end, we must strengthen our own defense capabilities, strengthen the Japan-US alliance and intensify cooperation with other Group of Seven countries. While working closely with the United Nations, we must also strengthen our partnership with NATO, it being understood that the security of Asia is inseparable from that of Europe.

With this insurance policy in place, the Japanese government must fulfill its fundamental long-term commitment to conclude a peace treaty with Russia by negotiating a solution to the territorial question on the basis of the Tokyo Declaration of 1956 – if not with Putin, at least with one of his successors.

(Originally published in Japanese. Headline photo: Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their summit in Singapore on July 14, 2018. © AFP/Jiji.)

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