Dr. Joseph P. Farrell
December 17, 2016
Last Thursday in my News and Views from the Nefarium I talked about the Onsen summit in Japan between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. As I put it then, one should not expect many breakthroughs from the summit on the issue of the Kuril islands, those northern islands seized from Japan by the Soviet Union at the end of World War Two. Neither nation has, since then, been willing to renounce those claims. Instead, I suggested that one has to look forward to a long process of negotiations on a whole host of issues. But the central geopolitical issue is, Russia needs Japanese financing and expertise to develop Siberian infrastructure, and as a counter-balance to growing Chinese influence in the region, and Japan needs a close, and secure, supply of energy that cannot be interdicted by China.
This geopolitical convergence, I’ve been arguing, is a much stronger gravitational pull than anything else keeping the two Asia powerhouses apart, including American pressure on Japan, and including the stormy relationships between the two countries that began in the Russo-Japanese war, when Japanese land and naval forces easily and handily defeated the Tsar, and seized several key Russian outposts in the far East, including Port Arthur. Back then, both powers sought a “neutral negotiating power” to conclude a peace, which was Teddy Roosevelt’s USA. Notably, neither power is now paying all that much attention to the USA, although Mr. Abe’s government carefully avoided giving the impression that Mr. Putin’s visit was a state visit, for he did not meet with Emperor Akihito.
However, I think we can safely chalk up my prediction of “no breakthroughs” at the summit in the “big miss” column. Here’s why:
There’s much to ponder in these articles, and I think it is safe to say that the two nations may have found not only a way around the Kurils issue, but also, in arriving at a unique solution, perhaps have established a template for further long-term action. In short, I think it’s safe to say that what we may have just witnessed is a quiet breakthrough, but one whose implications will continue to affect regional geopolitics for years if not decades to come.
First, note what the first article states about the Kurils issue:
Putin and Abe had to discuss the issue one-on-one after Russian and Japanese experts failed to agree on the wording of the statement, he added.
According to Ushakov, the statement on joint Russian-Japanese economic activities in the South Kuril Islands, which may concern fisheries, tourism, culture and medicine, will be published tomorrow.
Abe told reporters the leaders “thoroughly and frankly discussed the issues of free access to their homeland by former residents of the islands, joint economic activities between the two countries with a special economic zone on the islands, as well as the issue of a peace treaty.”
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov later stressed that the Japanese side had no objections to working in the framework of Russian law in the Kurils.
In other words, the rumors that we’ve heard about precisely such a solution to the problem, first aired by Russian and Japanese diplomats some months ago, appears to have been given some sort of formal consent by the two leaders. Note that under the terms of this putative agreement, Russia retains sovereignty, and hence, Japanese living, or doing business there, will operate under Russian, rather than Japanese law. In return, a “special economic zone” will be created, including free access of Japanese to the islands. What this means, I suspect, is that the Kurils are being viewed by both powers as the base of operations for future Japanese participation in Siberian infrastructure development. As such, we may expect that this “special economic zone” may include a lessening or complete lifting of tariffs between the two countries in the Kurils itself, for the flow of goods, services, and finance. Watch for future agreements working out the details of this arrangement. What intrigues here is that neither leader, apparently, ever raised the issue of sovereignty over the Kurils, but rather, cut right to the chase about the potentials for long term Russo-Japanese cooperation. And lest the obvious be missed, this is also an indicator of increasing American weakness, or at least, of the perception of increasing American weakness, particularly by The Empire of Japan.
Mr. Putin seems to reinforce these speculations with his own statements, as recorded in the second article:
Russia’s Kuril Islands, long disputed by Japan, may become a unifying element, Russian President Vladimir Putin said during his visit to Japan, noting that joint economic activities there could help the two countries finally agree on a peace treaty.
“If we take the right steps in the direction of the plan proposed by the Prime Minister [Abe], and he proposed creating a separate structure regulating economic activities on the islands, striking a legal intergovernmental agreement [and] working out a mechanism for interaction, [we can], on this basis, generate the conditions that would allow us to finally solve the problem of the peace treaty,” Putin told the news conference following talks with Japan’s prime minister on Friday.
“These islands, instead of a bone of contention between Russia and Japan, can, on the contrary, become something uniting [the two countries],” the Russian leader said.
The “long term template” idea appears to be in the thinking both of Mr. Abe, and Mr. Putin. The Kurils, in short, and far from being a stumbling block, are being made a test bed for wider and longer term arrangements. And geopolitically, it is difficult to conceive how China or the USA will be able to inject themselves into the process. It is under these conditions and considerations that I suspect we’ve witness a breakthrough.
But there is much more than economic cooperation going on here. There are also now on the table bi-lateral defense talks under way on…
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