HOW SHOULD JAPAN RESPOND TO PUTIN’S ABRUPT CALL FOR PEACE TREATY?
“Let’s conclude a peace treaty before the end of this year without any pre-conditions.” So proposed Vladimir Putin abruptly to Shinzo Abe on September 11 during the Russian-sponsored Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East.
Despite conferring with each other time and again—22 times to be exact—since 2013, the two leaders have yet to sign the treaty after failing to resolve the crucial issue of the four northern Japanese islands occupied by the Soviets at the end of World War II.
But now, Putin wants to sign the treaty by the end of 2018, implying that he has in mind a joint Japan-Soviet declaration signed in 1956, in which Tokyo and Moscow agreed to restore diplomatic relations and settle the territorial dispute at a future date. What is Putin’s true intent? What is he after?
Over the years, Japan has maintained that the basic requirement for signing the peace treaty is Moscow’s recognition of Japan’s claim to the four southernmost Kuril islands—Habomai, Shikotan, Kunashiri, and Etorofu. Putin’s “no preconditions” proposal instantly aroused grave wariness in Japan that the Russian dictator must be trying to shelve the territorial issue, or even completely take it off the table.
Why did Putin make so provocative a proposal as this—one that he ought to know could lead to a diplomatic debacle for Japan? Let us consider the circumstances leading to his remarks.
Abe remarked during the plenary session of the forum: “(At the 2016 Japan-Russia summit), President Putin and I made up our minds to take a new approach. We agreed to start redoubling our earnest efforts so that people in both nations could come to grips with the importance of resolving the territorial issue and signing the coveted peace treaty.”
Putin responded swiftly: “Shinzo said ‘Let’s change our approaches.’ Let’s. Let’s conclude a peace agreement by the year’s end without any preconditions. We can continue to solve all outstanding issues after that like friends.”
Abe responded to Putin’s proposal with nothing more than an embarrassed smile. The following day, most Japanese media outlets were critical of Abe’s “weak” posture, carrying headlines such as: The Danger of Abe’s Reckless Diplomacy (the liberal Asahi Shimbun) and Abe Should Absolutely Oppose Shelving of Territorial Issues (the conservative Sankei Shimbun).
One Chance in a Million
Presumably because of its dislike of Abe, the Asahi carried markedly critical and emotional commentaries. Although critical of Abe, the Sankei’s commentaries were logical and coherent. Interestingly, the Yomiuri Shimbun, another conservative daily, virtually ignored the story. But of particular note, of course, was how Abe himself followed up on Putin’s proposal.
Abe returned from Vladivostok September 13 and attended a policy debate session for the ruling Liberal-Democratic Party’s presidential election at the Japan Press Club the following day. He told his opponent, Shigeru Ishiba:
“Before and after President Putin made the proposal, I fully reiterated to him Japan’s requirements for signing the peace treaty, and President Putin understood very well what I had to say about the territorial issue…We need to read signals from Mr. Putin’s words. There is no doubt that (Putin) said, ‘Let’s sign a proper peace treaty.’”
Abe further stated that he views as “particularly important” the meetings being arranged with Putin in November and December. Would it be too naïve to assume that Putin’s remarks may hint at the possibility of welcome fruit? Isn’t it just possible that Abe knows what he is doing?
After all, he has held nearly two dozen summits with Putin while forging ahead with a policy towards Russia as a political leader who understands diplomacy best among his Japanese contemporaries. What possible solutions to the territorial issue has Abe sought with Putin behind the scenes? Fumito Ishibashi, head of the Sankei’s political section who knows Abe intimately, had this to say last Friday night as a guest on my regular “Genron TV” internet news show:
“There’s a possibility that Putin’s proposal may ‘move a mountain,’ as it were. For one thing, I believe Putin is committed to the joint Japan-Russian declaration of 1956. That will mean that two of the islands—Habomai and Shikotan—would be returned to Japan unconditionally following the conclusion of a formal treaty. How the remaining issues would be resolved depends on how negotiations evolve from that point on between Tokyo and Moscow. That the Russian side tossed the ball into our court this time, I am convinced, is of great significance.”
The 1956 joint declaration stipulates:
“…the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, desiring to meet the wishes of Japan and taking into consideration the interests of the Japanese State, agrees to transfer to Japan the Habomai Islands and the island of Shikotan, the actual transfer of these islands to Japan to take place after the conclusion of a Peace Treaty between the Soviet Socialist Republics and Japan.”
The declaration does not refer to “four islands,” nor state that a confirmation of the islands’ jurisdiction should precede the signing of the treaty. But it does spell out that two of the islands will be unconditionally transferred to Japan after the treaty is concluded.
“The average age of former residents of the islands is nearly 80 years old now,” noted Ishibashi. “In 10 to 20 years, almost all of them will have passed away, and I feel there will be very few family members or relatives who will care to go back to the islands. Against such a backdrop, I have a feeling that both Abe and Putin may have determined that a new approach was called for.”
Only decisions that powerful leaders like Putin and Abe can render in a top-down fashion will resolve the territorial issue, which strongly appeals to the emotions of the public in both Russia and Japan. Putin managed to win a new six-year term in the presidential elections last spring, while Abe is expected to win a landslide victory in the September 20 ruling party presidential elections to secure an additional three-year term. Would I be wrong to assume that Putin sees one chance out of a million to realize the Japan-Russia peace treaty?
Transfer of Two Islands
“They have tossed the ball into our court, fixing a time limit at the end of this year,” noted Ishibashi. “I believe we have to take a chance this time, even if Putin may not be able to ‘move a mountain.’ But isn’t it also a fact that there likely will be no second chance if we are to miss this one now?”
Former Russian ambassador to Japan, Alexander N. Panov, is similarly optimistic about Abe and Putin being able to ‘move a mountain.’ In an article in the Asahi’s September 14 edition, Panov stated that Putin’s idea of “signing a peace treaty within this year” is not what he “just thought up” at the moment in Vladivostok, nor is it “far from new.” He explained:
“He entertained the same idea when he first became president of Russia in 2000. At the time, Putin had two treaties in mind—one defining peace, friendship, and cooperation between Russia and Japan, and the other defining our borders based on the first treaty.”
Panov noted that Putin this time referred to the first treaty and that, if that materializes, the Russian leader is hoping to include in the second treaty matters pertaining to the joint Japanese-Russian economic activities now being advanced.
While noting that the Russian side is ready to move ahead, Panov said he sees a possibility that the Japanese side may fail to respond to the Putin proposal positively.
The history of the Japanese-Russian peace treaty negotiations is marked by many hardships the Japanese side has undergone as it endeavored to stand its ground for a return of all of the four northern islands. I don’t believe our prime minister will ignore such history and settle for a return of just the two small islands in honoring the spirit of the 1956 declaration.
We don’t know specifically what Abe and Putin talked about during those 22 meetings over the past five years; each presumably must have revealed his true intention to the other once at some point. But I am confident that Abe will not do anything to impair our national interests.
Japan is in a difficult position vis-à-vis Putin’s Russia. Long shielded by a security treaty with the US, Japan is unable to run neck and neck with Russia militarily on its own. We are saddled with such difficult issues as the territorial dispute with Russia and the Japanese abductees still held in North Korea. Every time I realize how limited our security capability is, I cannot but be painfully reminded of the urgent need for Japan to revise its constitution.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 820 in the September 27, 2018 issue of The Weekly Shincho)