By Tom Holcombe, an intern with the Lowy Institute's International Security Program

It's been more than 70 years since World War II ended but there is still no peace treaty between Japan and Russia. Is this about to change?

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Joint Declaration by Japan and the then Soviet Union, in which the two agreed to continue treaty negotiations. This post-World War II relationship has been difficult, marred by Cold War tensions and an intractable territorial dispute. Now, however, the political leadership in both nations but most noticeably in Japan appear to have calculated the possible benefits merit working harder to reach agreement.

Despite a recent setback in the form of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Japan's participation in the resulting sanctions, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has personally sought to breathe new life into the peace treaty negotiations. In January this year Abe took the unusual step of establishing the position of 'Ambassador for Japan-Russia Relations' to oversee high-level bilateral consultations. In announcing the appointment of the former Japanese Ambassador to Russia, Chikahito Harada, to this position, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said working on the bilateral relationship 'is a diplomatic task of the highest priority'.

Conversations between Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin have led to increased interactions. A third round of talks at the deputy foreign ministerial level took place last week. Foreign ministerial talks are scheduled to take place in Japan in April. Abe still plans to go to Russia in May for an unofficial visit with Putin, even though US President Barack Obama has asked the visit be postponed. Abe has also invited Putin to visit Japan later this year, and Putin has agreed.

A number of issues, including Japan’s security relationship with the US, have made this a difficult bilateral relationship to navigate. However, the biggest obstacle to negotiations has been, and continues to be, the territorial dispute surrounding the four islands (Iturup/Etorofu, Kunashir/Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Khabomai/Habomai Islets) that constitute the southern Kuril Islands/Northern Territories. The islands were occupied by the Soviet Union following Japan's surrender. Tokyo contends the islands remain inherent territories of Japan and Russia is an illegal occupier. Moscow maintains Japan has failed to accept post World War II historical realities.

In the 1956 Joint Declaration, the Soviet Union agreed to transfer to Japan Shikotan and the Khabomai/Habomai Islets following the conclusion of a peace treaty. In January this year Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said a transfer (not a 'return') of these two islands would be a gesture of goodwill. He also said that Moscow does not consider a peace treaty to be synonymous with a resolution of the territorial issue, but acknowledged the historical aspects of the bilateral relationship would be part of the treaty discussions.

Discussions regarding the territorial dispute will only become more difficult. Russia has been constructing military-related facilities on Iturup/Etorofu and Kunashir/Kunashiri, and both of these, along with Shikotan, fall within the scope of a Russian Government targeted socioeconomic programme.

 Given all of these difficulties, why is Abe so intent on making progress? Some believe Abe has a personal interest in seeing negotiations come to fruition. His father, Shintaro Abe when Japanese foreign minister built ties with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. But while Abe may well desire to advance the work his father progressed, improved bilateral relations would also work in favour of Japan’s national interest. Likely benefits to Japan that would flow from conclusion of a peace treaty include:

  • Resolution of the territorial dispute (Japan could not agree to a peace treaty with no connection to the territorial dispute). This would enhance Japan's security to the north and reduce its territorial disputes to those with China and South Korea.
  • Japan could finally draw a line under World War II, at least as far as Russia is concerned. This would be consistent with some of Abe's other policies, such as the recent conclusion of a Japan-South Korea agreement on the issue of comfort women.
  • It would provide impetus for developing the bilateral economic relationship, including opportunities for Japan to diversify its energy imports in addition to its existing LNG investment in Sakhalin.
  • Closer engagement with Moscow could assist in preventing closer strategic coordination between Russia and China.

Putin has appeared positive towards the conclusion of a peace treaty and resolution of the territorial dispute. Benefits to Russia include:

  • A peace treaty would be a symbolic step forward for a Russian pivot to Asia.
  • With Russia's economy struggling in the wake of a drop in oil prices, and the imposition of sanctions, closer relations could lead to an improvement in bilateral trade and economic cooperation.
  • Russia could leverage a closer political and strategic relationship with Japan as a hedge to its relationship with China, in which it is perceived to be the junior partner.

While the factors above identify an overlap of interests, both sides would have to make significant concessions to resolve the territorial dispute. Any concession by Moscow could be based on the 1956 Joint Declaration, but it is less clear what concession could be made by Tokyo. Abe's personal involvement, emphasis on high-level talks and push to make headway in negotiations could see him more willing to make compromise than past Japanese prime ministers. It would appear the onus is on Abe to show why things will be different this time.

Photo by by Volkan Furuncu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images