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Just as U.S. president-elect Donald Trump increasingly appears willing to mend ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, this week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to seal a historic rapprochement with the Russian leader of his own. Ahead of their December 15 meeting in Abe's hometown of Yamaguchi, the Japanese prime minister invited his counterpart to a special winter retreat at one of Japan’s finest hot springs. Abe hoped to leverage the symbolism—Russia has a comparable culture of banya—to consolidate a growing personal bond with Putin and achieve a breakthrough in the frozen bilateral relations during the summit in Tokyo the following day.
In Japan, expectations have grown high that the two sides can finally resolve the lingering issue of the four Kuril Islands, which has impeded bilateral peace talks since the islands were captured from the Japanese by the Soviet Red Army during the final days of World War II. Yet that has been true of every such summit, including Putin’s last meeting with Abe during the 2016 APEC in Peru, and hopes have invariably been dashed. This time, however, the two leaders appear ready for a frank dialogue. Indeed, emerging geopolitical tides could help Abe seal a historic rapprochement with Russia.
The bilateral stalemate persists because the Cold War still haunts Asia. Unlike Europe, Asia’s Cold War–era geopolitical map was never redrawn. North and South Korea are still divided, even as East and West Germany have come back together. The lingering territorial dispute over the four Kuril Islands is another such legacy. Past territorial talks, meanwhile, have largely faltered because of the countries’ continued adherence to outdated principles, including the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which provided for the return two of the four disputed islands to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty.
In recent years, Russia and Japan have both expressed the need for a new approach to their dispute. For one, their interests have largely converged over the issue of China. From Moscow’s perspective, Japan was a major counterweight against China in advancing Russia’s pivot to Asia. Likewise, Tokyo viewed Russia as a strategic balance against Beijing’s growing clout in Eurasia. And so, in 2012, Putin moved to renew bilateral territorial talks, and in 2013, Abe reciprocated by calling for a strategic partnership. Yet Euromaidan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014 shook the foundation of the emerging bilateral relations, partly because Japan joined in the Western sanctions against Russia. From Moscow’s perspective, Tokyo’s about-face was not just a betrayal: it epitomized Japan’s continued dependence on the United States.
It is true that Tokyo’s attitude toward Moscow is tied up with Washington’s Asia strategy. Even two decades after the Soviet collapse, outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama concentrated on balancing Washington’s defense checkbook in Asia, largely preserving its Cold War–era security structure centered around the U.S.-Japanese alliance. Although widely interpreted as a major departure from its postwar pacifism, even Japan’s security legislation reforms last year essentially amounted to another attempt by Tokyo to reinterpret its U.S.-drafted constitution in order to perpetuate the country’s fundamental dependence on the United States, as enshrined in the alliance. Indeed, a year after the legislative change, Tokyo’s security normalization is still far from full-fledged re-militarization.
However, the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency could administer a coup de grâce to Asia’s Cold War phantom. In fact, Trump’s recent phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen directly challenged the United States’ longstanding One-China policy. It implied Trump’s willingness to fundamentally reconsider Washington’s regional architecture. Moreover, Trump’s tough talk on Japan—he insinuated the possibility of drastically upending the structure of the alliance—could provide Tokyo with the external pressure necessary for drastic changes with significant implications for the country’s frozen relations with Russia.
Japan would greatly benefit from pursuing improved relations with Russia. A formal peace with Moscow would allow Tokyo to serve as a bridge between the United States and Russia. As Asia’s only country with a security dialogue mechanism with both Washington and Moscow (via its 2+2 Foreign and Defense Ministers Meeting), Japan has a unique potential for facilitating trilateral strategic cooperation in the region. Such cooperation would expand the geographical scope of Trump’s emerging bid for a U.S.-Russian rapprochement while undermining the growing strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing. Achieving such structural changes in Asia’s regional security architecture would considerably boost Abe’s vision for Japan’s global leadership.
Moreover, Russia holds the key to checking China’s growing access to Eurasian resources and fueling Beijing’s maritime ambitions. China’s provocations in the South China Sea largely derive from its abiding sense of insecurity about ensuring hydrocarbon imports. Energy supplies from Eurasia have eased the hydrocarbon crunch, but Beijing has used the good fortune to boost its naval adventures. In fact, Beijing’s overt maritime provocations suddenly began to increase shortly after the 2009 completion of the 1,140 mile-long Central Asia–China gas pipeline, which delivers 40 billion cubic meters of gas from Turkmenistan each year. This was no surprise, since a secure Eurasia would be a necessary condition for staking claims in the South China Sea.
Beijing’s global infrastructure agenda, the One Belt One Road initiative, is poised to further expand China’s access to Eurasian resources. Furthermore, two major Russian pipelines to China are currently under construction. If Tokyo forges strategic relations with Moscow beyond economic cooperation, the two could prevent Eurasia from becoming Beijing’s rear resource base—and prevent even more Chinese belligerence in nearby seas. Ultimately, trilateral strategic cooperation in Asia among Moscow, Tokyo, and Washington could trigger a qualitative shift in the region’s current maritime-centric efforts to counter China’s naval challenges.
The benefits of a broad Russia-Japan rapprochement are far clearer to both sides than those of a breakthrough in the entangled territorial talks. To cut the Far Eastern Gordian knot, Tokyo will have to temporarily shelve its territorial issues with Russia and separate them from peace talks. This, of course, would be a high price to pay, and it is easier said than done. Yet, the solution would allow Tokyo to advance its strategic relations with Moscow beyond economic cooperation. Moreover, keeping the territorial dispute alive would allow Tokyo to check Moscow’s potential military ambitions in the Far East. In other words, the four Kuril Islands would remain a tripwire that could potentially invoke Tokyo’s military response or treaty obligations codified in the U.S.-Japanese alliance.
In 2014, Putin quipped, “The ball is in Japan’s court,” in reference to the protracted territorial talks. What is at stake for Japan today is a historic opportunity to address its China problem and simultaneously boost its global role. Indeed, as the Trump victory rattles Washington and political volatility shakes its major allies in Asia, including South Korea and the Philippines, Japan is now emerging as a key defender of regional order. Now the ball is truly in Japan’s court. The latest summit with Putin will be the first test of whether Abe recognizes his country’s newfound strategic role.