Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Strategy and Tactics – The Perception Gap in the "2-plus-2" Talks between Japan and Russia
ISHIGOOKA Ken  / Journalist

December 20, 2013
In early November, foreign and defense ministers from Japan and Russia met for their first "2-plus-2" talks. This was only the third of its kind for Japan apart from those with the United States and Australia, and as such the talks made headlines in the Japanese media, which hailed the occasion as a groundbreaking development in Japan-Russia relations using words like "unprecedented" and "historic." However, the talks did not generate such excitement on the Russian side, whose reaction was, if anything, tepid. There was clearly a gap in perception between Japan and Russia.

Russia sent Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Japan, who met with their counterparts Kishida Fumio and Onodera Itsunori for a total of about two hours and forty minutes including a working lunch. The talks were followed by the release of a commemorative photograph in which the four appeared smiling together, and an announcement that the 2-plus-2 talks were highly appreciated by both Japan and Russia. Foreign Minister Lavrov reportedly said "it opened up a new era," and Foreign Minister Kishida that "it will contribute to peace and stability."

Yet, the influential Russian newspaper Kommersant commented that the 2-plus-2 talks were being assessed differently by Moscow and Tokyo, and that it had been a case of "strange bedfellows." During the talks, Defense Minister Shoigu apparently voiced his concerns over Japan's participation in the global missile defense program promoted by the United States, while Foreign Minister Lavrov appealed for the creation of a new security system structured on non-military blocs.

The Japanese side responded by citing missiles as the only method of defense against Chinese military expansion and asked Russia to fall into line against China's "military expansionism." In the press conference held after the talks, Foreign Minister Lavrov said "Russia would not forge friendly relations with one party that would make an enemy out of another," stating emphatically that Russia cannot conform with Japan's confrontational stance against China.

He also brushed off questions concerning the territorial dispute by saying the issue was "not on the agenda" of the 2-plus-2 talks, effectively putting a damper on heightened Japanese expectations for the return of territory. According to the Russian media, Russian government sources had explained to the accompanying reporters that "a realistic solution lay not in the signing of a peace treaty, but rather in an agreement on neighborly cooperation." This suggests that Russia is not taking an active stance towards resolving the territorial dispute.

Then again, it is of course plausible that this did not reflect the true intentions of the Russian government, but was an attempt by its officials to manipulate the media. Moreover, opinion is divided within the Russian government itself. In contrast to the hardline approach taken by previous President Dmitry Medvedev, who stated that Russia would hand over "not a centimeter of territory" to Japan, the incumbent President Vladimir Putin has explained his desire for a "draw" with Japan. Meanwhile, the foreign ministry's approach is actually closer to that of Medvedev.

More significantly, there was a considerable difference between Japan and Russia in their approach towards the 2-plus-2 talks to begin with. How could Russia possibly take cooperative military action with Japan, which is in a military alliance with the United States and remains under its "nuclear umbrella"? An independent newspaper cast doubt on the issue, asking: Is there any reason why Russia should offer military cooperation? Put the other way, while there were no significant developments in the cooperative relationship, there were no contentious issues either, which made the talks a happy occasion for both sides to smile and shake hands.

The bigger question facing Japan and Russia is the presence of China lurking in the background of the 2-plus-2 talks. China's growing might poses a threat to both Japan and Russia. However, Russia does not contemplate pitting itself against China or making an enemy out of China. For Russia, growing military tensions with a country with which it shares borders stretching thousands of kilometers would be nothing but a nightmare. Realistically, Russia is in no position to follow Japan on a course that could antagonize China. Russia is taking a long-term strategy of appeasing and placating China to prevent the country from running out of control. And from the Russian perspective, Japan is only advocating what amounts to a short-term tactic without accounting for the future course of China or northeast Asia as a whole.

In mid-November, President Putin paid a round of visits to Vietnam and South Korea – countries whose relationships with China are somewhat sensitive – and held intensive negotiations. In particular, he took a large-scale political/economic delegation to South Korea, repeatedly holding talks that went beyond schedule that yielded a broad agreement on building a railroad across the Korean Peninsula, laying gas pipelines and constructing an electric power network. In addition, South Korea and Russia also agreed to introducing a no-visa program for short stays of up to 60 days from January next year.

President Park Geun-hye launched the concept of an "expanded Eurasia project" extending from Busan in Asia to Lisbon in Europe, alongside President Putin who appeared quite satisfied himself. The closer relationship between South Korea and Russia was no doubt backed by strategic consultations between the two countries regarding their response to China's rapidly expanding influence and the future shape of the Korean Peninsula.

Viewed against the top-level meetings that took place between South Korea and Russia, the 2-plus-2 talks between Japan and Russia seem to have been focused on formal discussions for building a framework rather than a strategic dialogue, resulting in less substance. From President Putin's perspective, Japan is offering no ideas on how it intends to deal with Russia or on its approach to shaping the future of northeast Asia, if it is indeed thinking about such issues at all. And until Japan comes up with a strategy on these important issues, it is perhaps best for Russia to dodge the subject by engaging in the 2-plus-2 talks.

Ishigooka Ken is a journalist and former special editor of the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper..
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

石郷岡 健 / ジャーナリスト

2013年 12月 20日











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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Strategy and Tactics – The Perception Gap in the "2-plus-2" Talks between Japan and Russia