Russia/Japan politics: Quick View - Japan-Russia stalemate over disputed territory

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Economist Intelligence Unit
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Russia, Japan


Japanese and Russian representatives will meet in December to discuss details of a number of joint projects and the movement of people. The meetings are part of an ongoing diplomatic initiative to foster ties between the two countries.


Japan's prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and Russia's president, Vladimir Putin have now met more than 20 times, either officially or on the sidelines of international meetings, over the past five years or so. The last meeting took place on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) meeting in Vietnam on November 10th. During that meeting, Mr Abe and Mr Putin focused on a number of issues, including their decades-old territorial dispute over the Southern Kuril Islands (referred to as the Northern Territories in Japan), tensions on the Korean peninsula, and joint economic opportunities.

Mr Abe's sustained engagement of Russia continues to be a priority for his administration, which is aiming to improve bilateral ties that have long been fraught as a result of their historical territorial row. Unfortunately for the administration in Japan, however, there does not appear to be a shared urgency from Russia to address the territorial issue. During the meeting in Vietnam, Mr Putin again poured cold water on the notion of an impending breakthrough on the dispute and also indicated that it would be challenging to finalise a peace treaty-to formally end hostilities from the second world war-as a result of Japan's security alliance with the US.

Russia's pushback against Japan is not surprising, especially in light of its strained relationship with the US and the West in general. While Russia faces domestic pressure to avoid a symbolic conciliatory gesture to Japan on the territorial dispute, there are also concerns in Russia that the return of some of the disputed islands to Japan's administration would have an impact on its security because of the US-Japan military alliance. If two of the four islets are returned, for example, they could subsequently fall under the US-Japan security treaty protection-an idea that is antithetical to Russia, which is keen to protect its direct neighbourhood from any foreign influence.

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