A territorial dispute has overshadowed relations between Japan and Russia for decades. Next week, Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe is visiting Moscow to initiate efforts to find a compromise.
It's the first time in 10 years that a Japanese head of government is visiting Moscow in an official capacity. The last time a Russian president visited Tokyo was eight years ago. Shinzo Abe will meet his counterpart Vladimir Putin next week. The summit might pave the path to progress in long-stalled territorial talks over four sparsely populated islands in the Pacific which the Russians call the southern Kuriles and the Japanese call the Northern Territories – Kunashir, Iturup, Shikotan and Habomai in Russian and Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and Habomai in Japanese.
In February, Japan deployed interceptor planes after accusing Russian jet fighters of intruding on Japanese air space while it held military maneuvers around the disputed territories.
That's why Japan's new prime minister's announcement to find a "mutually-acceptable solution" in February came as a surprise. Russian President Vladimir Putin also struck a conciliatory tone at a preparatory meeting with the former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori whom Shinzo Abe had sent as his envoy to Moscow. He said it was "abnormal" that there was no peace treaty. In March, he signaled that he wanted to end the dispute with hikiwake, a term from judo that means "draw."
Political and economic rapprochement
The political rapprochement is a result of growing interest in increased mutual economic cooperation. As cheap shale gas from the US undermines the gas trade between Russia and the EU, Russia is turning to Japan which already procures 9.5 percent of its liquefied natural gas from Moscow. Moreover, Russia needs money and technology from Japan to develop its industries and agriculture, especially in the under-populated east. Japan's Sojitz Corporation is currently building a gas pipeline to provide the region with electricity, heating fuel and thermal energy plants.
Shinzo Abe will be accompanied by a 120-strong business delegation, including executives of trading houses, banking, healthcare, agriculture, real estate and energy companies which see a great potential for building up infrastructures and energy provision in Russia.
Gazprom is planning to build a liquid gas factory in Vladivostok with its Japanese partners Itochu and Japan Petroleum Exploration. In mid-April, the Russian mineral oil company Rosneft and the Japanese company Marubeni signed a pre-contract for another liquid gas factory.
According to various media reports, the two countries are planning to launch a fund of up to one billion US dollars to encourage investment in Russia.
Concern about China
Both Japan and Russia have China in sight as they pursue their political and economic interests. Russia is worried about China's growing economic and military might. Chinese influence over Russia's far east is growing because of trans-border workers and firms. Japan is not only a natural partner for curbing China's power but also for buying natural resources from Siberia.
At the same time, the new Japanese government wants to prevent Russia and China from ganging up on it together. In March, Japan was shocked when Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart assured each other mutual support in questions of territory and security. Tokyo was concerned Russia might side with China in the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
There will only be rapid progress in Japanese-Russian relations if a solution is found to the Kuril island dispute. Russia has offered to give up two of the islands near Hokkaido since the 1950s but Japan has wanted Russia to return all four. In February, Yoshiro Mori suggested Japan could forego one of the islands but he was called back by Tokyo. Now, Abe and Putin could perhaps agree to new negotiations.
However, there are also complicated questions of international law. The USSR denounced the Japanese–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact in April 1945 and occupied the islands shortly afterwards. In 1951, in the Treaty with Japan at San Francisco, Japan renounced its stakes to the Kuriles, which it had claimed in 1905. However, it said that the four disputed islands did not belong to the Kuriles. Russia did not sign the treaty. The dispute has remained open since diplomatic relations between the two countries were restored in 1956. It is further complicated by the fact that the disputed waters are rich in fish, oil, gas and rare minerals.