I happen to read one interesting article in the Foreign Policy online. It is called “When One Door Closes…“. What it says basically is that when Russia is under the US sanctions it is good timing for both Japan and Russia to negotiate on the Northern Territories. Author suggests that Russia might as well give back the Northern Territories to Japan in return for Japan not supporting the sanctions against it.
Why the return of the Northern Territories will not happen?
Author says that it will be in Russia’s interests to partner with Japan, because the only other “partner” Russia now has is China. It is true that China might be dangerous for Russia in the mid-term, and there is even some understanding about this in the Russian so-called ‘elite’. But the striking difference between Chinese and Russian rulers is that China thinks thirty, fifty even hundred years ahead, while the Russian so-called ‘elite’ thinks only a couple of years in the future. So the alarming voices of those who rightfully think China is there to hug Russia to death is unlikely to be heard after Putin’s ‘triumphant’ annexation of Crimea.
One should think about the ‘Russian way of thinking’. Putin is on the high. People’s support for him even among the liberals who opposed him so far has skyrocketed. This will not last long, but at the moment the situation is like this. Putin is enjoying it. Author states that in 2012 Putin mentioned a possibility of “hikiwake”, a ‘draw’ meaning that the four islands comprising the Northern Territories are to be split 50/50 – two northern islands would remain with Russia and two southern would go to Japan, and that Putin may spend his “ample patriotic capital” to strike a deal on the Northern Territories with Japan. In my view, this will never happen. For Putin his own popularity, the support of the plebs in untouchable. He will never spend it on anything other than building up even more support for himself. This is a crucial thing to understand about today’s Russia.
In 2005 Russia did forfeit some of its territory on the Amur river, which is a natural border between China and Russia on the Far East. 337 sq.km. have gone over to China. This was not openly announced in the state news on the Russian TV, so most people are still unaware of the fact. Thus Putin’s popularity did not suffer. On the other hand, if the Northern Territories were to be given back to Japan, it would be a huge news that cannot be hidden even in autocratic Russia, and Putin will have to explain his actions to his supporters.
Another important thing is that from Russian point of view China’s way of thinking is close to that of Russia. Both countries live not by the law, but one’s notions of the law. Corrupted officials is another thing in common between the two countries. That is why it is easy for China and Russia to find a common language. Lack of a strategic long-term planning in Russia means that China would always win in longer run, but Russia does not seem to be bothered with it. Much less now, after the Crimea’s euphoria.
On the other hand, Japan is being considered in Russia to be a part of “The West”, a hostile world that in Putin’s distorted view is set to subjugate and destroy Russia. So one can never expect that the level of covert dialogue possible between China and Russia, would also be possible between Japan and Russia. When the two thugs are talking they can understand each other well. But when a thug and a good citizen are talking the level of understanding is different.
Then author says that it will not be in the interests of Japan if Russia is to side with China on the Senkaku Islands. It is true that for Japan it is not desirable, but what is in it for Russia? Openly supporting China on Senkakus, which China has been demanding for several years, would mean that Russia has made its choice and is now under influence from China. Relations with Japan will be lost forever. No selling gas to Japan, no direct investments from Japan. It would be a huge loss for Russia and will leave it one on one with expanding China.
Then, as I wrote earlier, Russia is fortifying its military presence on the Northern Territories. In addition Russia has stepped up its provocations in the airspace. If this stupid behavior is called to influence Japan’s decision about supporting sanctions against it, then Putin has lost it completely. No government in Japan will be participating in a dialogue at the gunpoint. It is like Russia is begging for Japan to impose more sanctions of its own.
Sure enough Japan would welcome the end of occupation of the Northern Territories. But “hikiwake” will never be an option. At least not while the close relatives of the people who were living there are alive. For Japan it is all or nothing. Again, no government in Japan can accept the 50/50 deal. Such government will cease to exist the same day, and the next one would denounce the agreement.
If you take a look at weather forecast by the most neutral NHK TV you will see that the Northern Territories (all four islands) are there on the weather map. I cannot imagine that one day only the two would be left. Agreeing to Putin’s ‘hikiwake’ would mean that the two northern islands will be lost for Japan forever. Of course PM Shinzo Abe understands it, and it has always been Japan’s official position that all four islands of the Northern Territories are to be returned.
So what is to happen if Russia is to openly side with China on the Senkakus? For Japan it would mean that any significant relations with Russia are over. But even with Russian support China’s position over the islands will not get any stronger. The support from Russia would not mean that Russia will fight for China over the Senkakus. For once Russia just does not have that much money and power. So we are talking only of the ‘diplomatic’ support – Russia would acknowledge China’s sovereignty over the Senkakus. After Obama has reaffirmed that the US would protect the Senkaku Islands this China-Russia ‘alliance’ may make America to recognize Japan’s sovereignty over the islands. In any case for Japan it is not a matter of significance whether Russia sides with China on Senkakus or not.
For Japan Russian military presence in the Northern Territories and provocations along Japan’s borders is a certain sign that the dialogue on the return of the Northern Territories is not on Putin’s agenda.
As it was correctly mentioned in the article, Putin’s occupation of Crimea will never be supported by Japan as it is a classic attempt of bending the international rules through the brute force – the very thing that China is trying to do in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Even China with its ethnic separatist conflicts cannot support Russian occupation of Crimea openly.
As an afterword
Today it was announced that G7 has agreed further “broader, coordinated sanctions” on Russia over Ukraine. Details are to be announced on Monday. Of course Japan, being a member of the G7 club would participate in these coordinated sanctions. The real question would be if Putin has already annoyed Japan enough for it to participate in the sanctions more proactively.