At the recently concluded Eastern Economic Forum, Russia and Japan appeared to make progress on the longstanding dispute over the Kuril Islands.
Left-right: South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin during the Eastern Economic Forum. Photo: RIA Novosti
Russia's Pacific hub of Vladivostok recently played host to the 2016 Eastern Economic Forum (EEF). Taking place just days before the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, China, the EEF presented an excellent opportunity for Russia to solidify its position in the Asia-Pacific region as part of its so-called "pivot to the East."
One of the opportunities Russia took advantage of at the EEF was a chance to discuss economic ties with Japan as well as the two countries' unresolved disagreement over the Kuril Islands (known in Japan as the Northern Territories).
Over the course of two days, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed their longstanding disagreement over the Kuril Islands. Abe highlighted the need for a resolution on the dispute, stating that the past should not affect the future, and that it was not the economies of Japan and Russia that were in conflict.
The two leaders, who are due to meet again in December, agreed to take greater steps toward resolving the conflict. However, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov announced after talks on Sept. 2 that there was little hope in expecting a breakthrough in negotiations between the two sides.
At the popular level, relations between Japan and Russia appear to be quite good. Citing figures from a poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) in March of this year, Vzglyad, an online media outlet, highlights that 80 percent of Russians consider Japan to be a "friendly" nation, with 16 percent holding the opposite view. Just over half said that they could "trust" Japan as a friendly nation.
Furthermore, well over 75 percent of those polled believed Russia should cooperate with Japan on issues such as technology, trade and security; 58 percent stated they did not see Japan as a potential military threat, while 37 percent did assert this possibility. Yet 53 percent also said that the Kuril Islands are and always have been part of Russian territory.
Nevertheless, as the official level, relations between the two countries on the issue of the islands have stalled. Russia has made it clear that it will not sell the islands, and is otherwise not interested in sacrificing its territorial hold. The key is finding a way to end the dispute in a way that is agreeable to both parties, as well as signing a formal peace treaty to officially end hostilities dating from the Second World War.
In May of this year, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov declared that Russia would not give up the Kuril Islands, nor was it going to plead with Japan for a peace treaty. Lavrov cited that Russia was a "responsible" country that had inherited custody of the islands as the successor of the U.S.S.R. The lack of agreement and compromise has not stopped Japan, however, from continuing to invest in Russia's Far East.
Much of the current analysis regarding the resolution of the Japan-Russia quarrel focuses strictly on the two countries' own mutual ties. When gauging Russia's interests and its actions, it is important to bear in mind not only the bilateral relationship between Japan and Russia, but also the wider Northeast Asian environment.
In particular, while Japan and Russia are interested in increasing economic ties, Russia's strategic and security considerations toward not only Japan but other powers also play a major role in the disagreement.
The Kuril Islands are located in an area where several military powers - including China and the United States - converge. As such, the territories hold a strategic value that goes beyond the issue of ties with Japan. The Russian defense ministry has announced plans to militarize some of the islands, a move that has obviously drawn Japan's chagrin.
Yet, events such as the buildup of China's North East Fleet and the installation of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea underscore Russia's interests in preserving ownership of the islands for broader security interests.
Furthermore, the territorial disagreement between Moscow and Tokyo, while festering and irritating, is in many ways not at the forefront of politicians' thinking in Japan or Russia. Japan and Russia have pursued ties in a variety of areas while placing their quarrel on the back burner of their relationship.
For example, Kazuhiko Togo, a former Japanese foreign ministry official and expert on Russia, has called for Japan to allow other areas of cooperation with Russia to take precedence over the islands, lest Japan lose opportunities in its ties with Russia (be they diplomatic or economic) to other countries.
Therefore, Russia is likely to continue to value the islands as a critical facet of the nation's security in Asia-Pacific. As long as Japanese investors continue to express interest and take action in the Far East despite the unresolved disagreement, strategic imperatives are likely to continue holding a major place in Russia's view of the islands.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.