Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expected that his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Lima, Peru, would add some momentum to the latter's planned visit to Japan in December. But instead, the meeting ended on a note that was not quite what the Japanese government had anticipated.
Following the talks, Prime Minister Abe told reporters that negotiating a peace treaty with Russia was "not going to be easy." It was quite a contrast from Abe's emphasis that he'd gotten "a positive response" from Putin during bilateral talks in May and September of this year.
Perhaps Abe's restrained remarks were made to keep down the increasingly high hopes that the Japanese public appears to have toward a resolution of the territorial dispute over the Northern Territories. But they could also be interpreted as an indication that Russia exhibited a more hard-line stance than Japan had expected during the latest talks.
There are two possible contributing factors to why bilateral consultations are not proceeding as Abe had hoped, if that is indeed the case. One is the fact that Donald Trump, who during his U.S. presidential campaign called for improved relations with Russia, was elected the next president of the United States. This may mean that the U.S. will take a less vigilant attitude toward the closing distance between Tokyo and Moscow, making it easier for Japan-Russia economic cooperation.
At the same time, however, we must recognize Russia had thus far attempted to draw Japan closer to itself by showing willingness to compromise over the Northern Territories issue in order to keep the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama -- who has long taken a hard-line attitude toward Russia -- in check. Showing the international community that Japan, a participant in the economic embargo against Russia headed by the U.S., is willing to invite Putin for talks was a strategy on the part of Russia to undermine the solidarity among Japan, the U.S., and Europe. If the U.S. softens its approach toward Russia, however, Japan's strategic value to Russia will diminish.
Another contributing factor is the detention and dismissal of Russian Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev, which is believed to have taken place against a backdrop of policy conflict within the Russian leadership between liberal economic bureaucrats and hard-line former public security officials. If the hard-line camp is alarmed that improved relations with Japan could lead to compromises in territorial claims, it is questionable whether Putin would be able to sidestep the views of such a population in making a decision about the Northern Territories.
Following his meeting with Abe, Putin revealed that he and Abe debated economic cooperation on the four islands of the Northern Territories, after reiterating that sovereignty of the islands belong to Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also hinted that joint economic activities between Russia and Japan had been discussed during a bilateral summit in September. It is the same proposal that Moscow has presented to Tokyo multiple times in the past, but one that the Japanese government has rejected, saying it could not engage in such activities in compliance with Russian law. It appears that Russia is intent on shelving a resolution on the issue of who the islands belong to, and instead focusing on negotiating a framework for joint economic activities.
In its approach to negotiations with Russia, Japan must thoroughly consider changing global circumstances that may affect Tokyo-Moscow relations and Russia's stand on various issues.