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 Past territorial talks, meanwhile, have largely faltered because of the countries’ continued adherence to outdated principles, including the Soviet-Japanese Joint Declaration of 1956, which provided for the return two of the four disputed islands to Japan after the signing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 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.
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