Foreign and Defense Ministers of Russia and Japan held their first talks in the so-called two-plus-two format since November 2013 on Monday, March 20. Sergey Lavrov, Sergey Shoygu, Fumio Kishida and Tomomi Inada discussed the issues of regional and international security and confidence-building measures in the Asia-Pacific region.
In particular, the ministers touched upon the issues of combating terrorism, piracy, drug trafficking, arms smuggling and poaching, as well as tension around the DPRK’s nuclear program.
Besides, politicians continued to discuss the possibility of joint economic activities in the Southern Kuriles, which was the focus of a meeting of Russian and Japanese deputy foreign ministers Igor Morgulov and Takeo Akiba on Saturday, March 18.
The Japanese side also confirmed that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will visit Russia in April this year.
“Cooperation between states is necessary to adopt regulatory measures with regard to security issues. I consider it important that in this situation consultations in ‘two-plus-two’ format are held at the ministerial level for the first time in the past four years,” Tomomi Inada said at the meeting with Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu.
In turn, Sergey Lavrov stressed that the parties have accumulated a lot of important topics that require discussion and development of common positions.
“The main attention in the four ministers’ discussion was paid to the security issues in the Asia-Pacific region, and we expressed our concerns about maintaining a tendency toward bloc-like approaches to this crucial issue, as only collective measures are needed to successfully counter modern challenges and threats,” said Russian Foreign Minister at a press conference after the meeting.
Commenting on the outcome of the military-diplomatic talks in Tokyo, James Brown, Associate Professor of Political Science, Temple University, Japan Campus, said that there is currently a positive atmosphere in bilateral relations and both political and economic ties are becoming closer.
“Starting with the talks on joint economic activities on the disputed Southern Kurils, some progress was made on discussing specific projects, including tourism, aquaculture, and tele-medicine. However, as yet there is little indication that the sides can overcome the serious legal problems related to economic cooperation on the islands,” the expert told PenzaNews.
According to him, there is no legal basis for such cooperation yet.
“The Japanese government will not permit Japanese companies to be involved in projects on the islands if they are conducted under Russian law. This is because such activities would be regarded as tacit recognition of Russian sovereignty. Japan therefore insists on the creation of a special legal system for the islands, which would be neither under Russian nor Japanese legal jurisdiction. The Russian side shows little willingness to agree to this, with Deputy Foreign Minister Morgulov insisting that any such economic activities must be in accordance with Russian law. The sides therefore remain far apart,” the expert explained.
As for the “two-plus-two” talks, the results were mixed, he said.
“The both sides agreed to strongly urge North Korea to refrain from provocative actions. This is the issue of most importance to Japan since it feels threatened by North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. On the other hand, the talks showed that there remain many areas of disagreement between Japan and Russia over security. Specifically, Russia raised its opposition to US missile defense systems in Asia and criticized Japan’s commitment to exclusive, bloc-based security relationships, rather than to a system of comprehensive security for the region. Japan rejected such objections since it regards both missile defence and the alliance with the US as vital to its security,” James Brown said.
He also reminded that Russia refused to discuss the issue of China’s actions in the South China Sea. This was a clear sign that Russia values its relationship with China more highly than ties with Japan, he added.
“Perhaps most important, however, was not what was actually discussed at the ‘two-plus-two’, but rather the fact that the meeting took place. This was only the second ‘two-plus-two’ ever to be held between the countries, and the first since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis. This was a clear sign that Japan, despite retaining sanctions on Russia, believes that the time for isolating Russia has come to an end,” he stressed.
Meanwhile, in his opinion, there is still much that can upset the positive trend in Japan’s relations with Russia.
“Japan almost always follows the United States when it comes to foreign policy. For instance, this is why Japan introduced sanctions on Russia in 2014. This means that the election of Trump is initially good for Abe’s Russia policy since the US and Japanese leaders agree that it is important to engage with Russia,” the expert explained.
In turn, Masashi Nishihara, President of Research Institute for Peace and Security (RIPS) in Tokyo, former President of National Defense Academy, expressed the opinion that the leaders of the two countries treat each other with strong suspicion, thought they meet with each other rather often.
“Japan would like to promote trade and investment. However, Japan finds it hard to find buyers and items for investment, when the Far Eastern region of Russia is underpopulated. People-to-people relations are much better. Tourism and exchange of students and artists should be promoted more actively,” the analyst said.
According to him, the “two-plus-two” talks did not bring concrete results, but were “useful in terms of exchanging views.”
“The two sides only agreed on the need to restrain North Korea on its nuclear and missile programs, but they did not talk about how to restrain it. They disagreed on most of the other issues, including the legal status of proposed common economic activities in the Northern Territories, the deployment of new Russian troops and military facilities on the Northern Territories, the Japan-US missile defense system,” Masashi Nishihara said.
In his opinion, the territorial question will continue for decades.
“During the period of the sanctions, Japan has proposed economic cooperation projects and seeks special relations with Russia to draw Russia away from China and to settle the territorial question. I think this is nonsense. Japan cannot drive wedge between Russia and China. We cannot expect to have strong relations in the near future,” he suggested.
Meanwhile, Grant Newsham, Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies in Tokyo, with experience as a US Diplomat and US Marine Officer, called the bilateral relations lukewarm.
“This is better than Russia’s bilateral relations with any other G7 country, and even many non-G7 countries too,” the analyst said.
According to him, each side has something the other wants.
“In Japan’s case, it’s the Northern territories in particular, and the elusive prospects of Russian help reining in North Korea. In Russia’s case, Russia has depressed, sanctions-strapped economy. Ties with Japan also on the prospect of simple ‘legitimacy’ by virtue of holding regular top-level talks between Russian and Japanese leaders,” Grant Newsham said.
He also stressed that the talks were quite successful.
“Both sides addressed the contentious issues, but did not appear to press things. The main result is to keep things on track for Prime Minster Abe’s upcoming visit to Moscow. And at the margins, the talks turned out to be the groundwork for more detailed talks about possible Japanese economic assistance on the disputed Northern Territories. Sometimes a cordial meeting is enough. This was probably such a case,” the expert explained.
However, the decisions and statements, as reported, were the sort of pro-forma declarations one usually hears at these sorts of meetings, he said.
“The parties agreeing on activities to counter drug trafficking and terrorism and to hold military exchanges such as search-and-rescue practice, are not unusual. Registering complaints — over US missile defenses, Russian anti-ship missiles on the Kuril Islands — is standard practice, and it is worth noting,” Former US Diplomat said.
According to him, the most significant was the movement on the specific, small-scale economic and development work on the Northern Territories that reportedly took place at the lower level of the pre-meeting on the Saturday before the top-officials met.
“Anytime something happens out of these meetings that might result in something tangible within the foreseeable future, it deserves notice. […] Japanese money could be very useful in allowing Russian development — and by extension, political control over the long term,” Grant Newsham said.
In turn, Nobuhide Hatasa, Associate Professor, Nagoya Keizai University, drew attention to the fact that the recent relationship between Japan and Russia is mostly characterized by Prime Minister Abe’s strong determination of concluding peace treaty with Russia during his service.
“Advent of Trump Administration was a big chance for Abe to establish a close tie with Putin as President Trump was assumed to be rather friendly toward Russia. However Trump’s attitudes toward Russia are currently somewhat cautious after his close adviser was forced to be resigned due to illegal contacts with the Kremlin. This Washington’s unclear stance on Moscow is directly affecting the present Japan-Russia relations,” the expert said.
According to him, Russia needs to keep its eyes on the security of the Pacific region as long as the US’s hostility toward Russia is not fully removed.
“Russia’s deployment of missiles in the Northern Territories which Japan has been claiming is well explained by its threat against the US and by its distrust of Japan, which is the most intimate security ally of the US,” the analyst stressed.
According to him, in terms of security, there were no substantial outcomes at this time Japan-Russia talks; however, the bilateral dialogue itself has an important meaning for both of them and signals political messages to surrounding Asian and Western countries.
“For Abe’s administration, resolution of the territorial disputes with Russia through economic cooperation is the most significant diplomatic agenda, and dialogues with Russia must be maintained in order to facilitate future bilateral economic ties no matter how difficult their relations become. Japan is now facing a threat of North Korea’s nuclear missiles and being bothered by assertiveness of China in the South China Sea. Constructing a positive relation with Moscow is one effective way of enhancing Japan’s security environment to protect it from neighboring countries of North Korea and China, whose regimes are both authoritarian and unpredictable,” Nobuhide Hatasa added.
In his opinion, the Russian side also received a number of advantages from negotiations with Tokyo.
“Japan’s economic cooperation definitely contributes to boosting up an economy of Russia, which has been suffering from economic sanctions imposed by Western countries after its annexation of Crimea, and economic development of the Far Eastern region of Russia is one of important political agendas of Putin’s administration,” the expert explained.
Demonstrating that Russia is establishing a good relationship with Japan, a member of G7, is a useful tool to avoid Russia’s isolation among the world major advanced countries and to weaken the solidarity of Western countries over the Ukraine issues, he said.
“Two-plus-two talks’ with Russia have been halted by major advanced countries in response to Moscow’s annexation of the Crimean region in March 2014. The fact that Tokyo resumed ‘two-plus-two’ talks with Moscow for the first time since then has a certain positive impact for Russia on international political arena,” Nobuhide Hatasa concluded.