Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Moscow on Monday, in the first meeting between Russo-Japanese leaders in a decade. Recent years have seen relations between the two global heavyweights punctuated with recurring territorial disputes over a group of islands known as the Southern Kurils in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan. The former Soviet Union invaded the islands in the dying days of WWII, shortly after declaring war on Japan in what was clearly a strategic, win-win move.
The Soviets’ hasty declaration of war on Japan, followed by the imperial power’s surrender just days later, meant a treaty formally halting hostilities between the two countries never materialised. The Kuril/Northern Territories dispute has helped to preclude a resolution to this conundrum. Indeed, it is comparable to the situation on the Korean Peninsula, where the North and South never agreed a peace treaty after the 1950-3 Korean War.
The talks held two days ago were apparently productive. Firstly, an agreement was reached to resume talks on resolving the territorial dispute which has seen various provocative visits made by opposing politicians over the past few years. Secondly, and no doubt brought on by a wariness of the increasing economic influence of China in the region, the two states have agreed to bolster trade ties starting with Japan importing unprecedented supplies of Russian Liquified Natural Gas (LNG).
This apparent effort to strengthen what has historically been a weak relationship is surprising given the protagonists. Shinzo Abe, in his second spell as Prime Minister, is a well-known hawk who has in the past showed contempt for many of Japan’s neighbours and taken a resolute stance against China in particular over territorial, historic and economic disputes. His pragmatism, however, is now showing through. In a policy speech in February, Abe named Russia as a “Partner in the Asia-Pacific Region”, in addition to singing the praises of Australian and American involvement in Asian politics.
Abe wants to counter China, Japan’s oldest enemy. Yet his conciliatory overtures to another distrustful neighbour in Russia suggests that he is aware of the necessity to build bridges with other nations to prevent diplomatic and economic isolation for his beleaguered and ageing country.
Putin, too, is not known for his acquiescence to the whims of foreign powers. His invitation to meet Abe as part of a Russo-Japanese summit in Moscow shows that he too is willing to bury the historical hatchet as a ploy to carve open a future path free from the looming shadow of China. The fact that Putin has even suggested splitting the disputed Kuril Islands with Japan is testament to his renewed engagement with Abe.
One must not forget the historical enmity between Japan and Russia. Between 1904 and 1905 the two countries fought a bitter war that marked the emergence of Imperial Japan on the world stage and put one of the final nails into the coffin of the Romanov Dynasty in Russia.
The Russo-Japanese War had resulted from conflicting imperial ambitions and these would resurface in the 1930s when, having seized Korea and the Chinese province of Manchuria, Japan set its designs on Soviet territory. A series of skirmishes, accompanied by mass executions and barbarous prisoner treatment was only mildly tempered by the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact of 1941. The subsequent decision of Stalin to declare war on Japan in the dying days of WWII only solidified further the contempt and bitterness felt between the two nations.
It is therefore important not to underestimate the efforts of these two nationalistic and stubborn leaders to bring a reconciliation in relations between Russia and Japan. It is truly a sign of changing times where historical regret, petty territorial disputes and personal enmity cannot be allowed to overshadow the mighty leviathan stirring in their midst.