WWII peace treaty between Russia, Japan unlikely in near future

By Cui Heng Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/17 19:08:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Russian President Vladimir Putin suggested at the fourth Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) on September 12 that Russia and Japan should sign a peace treaty to formally end hostilities from WWII before the end of the year. The abrupt proposal stirred international public opinion and excited academic circles since the two nations have been negotiating signing such a treaty for over 70 years.

Putin didn't make the suggestion impulsively. When the president visited Japan in December 2016, he articulated his expectations that the economic cooperation between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan, would help create a favorable atmosphere for the continuation of negotiations on concluding a peace treaty, during his one-and-half-hour meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Signing a peace treaty with Japan will be of great help to improve Russia's external environment. For one thing, against the backdrop of a long-term confrontation between Russia and the West and unprecedented isolation the country is facing internationally, Moscow hopes to make a diplomatic breakthrough by improving relations with Japan. For another, since the Ukraine crisis, Russia has accelerated the implementation of its eastward strategy and devoted much of the country's energy into the development of the Siberian and Far Eastern region. It has cooperated with Asian countries to attract investments from nations such as China, Japan and South Korea. A rapprochement in Russia-Japan relations will create a favorable environment for more Japanese investment to flow in.

A peace treaty is also of great practical significance for Japan. Its absence means WWII has yet to end formally between Japan and Russia. It is the main obstacle to Japan becoming a normal country and seeking the status of a major international political power. For Abe, if the Japan-Russia peace treaty is signed during his tenure, he will be remembered by history, a temptation that any political figure could hardly resist.

While Japan and Russia have reached a consensus that a peace treaty should be signed, their disagreement lies in how to handle the disputed territories. Japan has long insisted that no peace treaty with Russia can be signed until the Northern Territories issue is resolved, while Russia believes signing a peace treaty should be detached from the territorial issue. The different stances are the fundamental reason why the treaty has failed to see the light of day in more than 70 years after WWII.

It's not surprising that Putin proposed to sign the peace treaty without mentioning the territorial dispute at the EEF since he has been consistent in saying that there is no territorial dispute between Russia and Japan. Since the end of WWII, Moscow has maintained that the Kuril Islands are legally part of Russia as a result of the war and there is no ground for Japan's territorial claim.

Given Russia's current domestic political situation, it is impossible for Putin to make concessions to Japan over the territorial issue. After the 2014 Ukraine crisis, fierce confrontation between Russia and the West has fueled rising nationalism in the country. Political parties and nationalist candidates gained much higher support than others in both the 2016 Duma elections and 2018 presidential election, while traditional pro-Western liberals lost popularity.

Because of surging nationalism, any concessions to Japan over the territorial issue will be strongly opposed by the Russian public, which will not only affect Putin's personal prestige, but also exert a negative influence on his social and economic reform plans. 

Japan will not give up its stance that the peace treaty can only be signed after the territorial issue is resolved. Nonetheless, the two countries will continue moving closer to each other and conduct a series of consultations on signing the treaty. Both have urgent need to improve relations.

As Putin's presidency will end in 2024, time is limited for Japan. Tokyo knows clearly that any progress in the treaty signing or resolving the territorial dispute can only be achieved during Putin's tenure. Whoever succeeds Putin will not be as prestigious as him and won't have courage to make any concessions. Thus at this year's EEF, Abe repeatedly emphasized the importance of changing approaches, calling on Russia to change its position on negotiations over the peace treaty.

Signing the peace treaty is a contest of patience and both Russia and Japan have pinned their hopes on concessions from the other side.

The author is an assistant of scientific research at the Research Center for Co-development with Neighboring Countries, East China Normal University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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