In addition to its other spectacles, the Sochi Olympics has seen a remarkable display of trilateral diplomacy among Russia, Japan, and China. Unlike many world leaders, both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping made sure to attend the Feb. 6 Opening Ceremony and engage in bilateral meetings with President Vladimir Putin and other Russian leaders at Sochi. Although U.S. President Barrack Obama was absent, the White House was clearly enjoying the diplomatic show.
The United States would benefit from a reconciliation between Russia and Japan. The tension between the two countries has complicated efforts to present North Korea with a united front, disrupted economic and energy cooperation in northeast Asia, and weakened a balancing factor that could help China continue its peaceful rise. Now the trilateral diplomacy at the Sochi Winter Olympics among Russian, Japanese, and Chinese leaders has helped achieve these ends. Washington should continue to quietly encourage this process. A high-profile U.S. initiative would needless antagonize the parties.
The main difference between Tokyo and Moscow concerns their territorial dispute over four islands that the Japanese term their Northern Territories and what the Russians call the Southern Kurils. Although these four uninhabited islands are as small and economically insignificant as those contested between Japan, China, and South Korea, this dispute, like the others, has long been augmented by issues of national prestige, diverging priorities, and assertive nationalist public opinion that discourages compromise. Without settling their islands dispute, Russia and Japan have proved unable to sign a peace treaty that would end the state of war that has existed between them since World War II.
Moscow and Tokyo share overlapping interests that should make them natural partners. In the economic realm, Russia and Japan continue to remain marginal players compared with China and the United States, who are trying to structure Asian economies along diverging paths that would offer Russia and Japan only modest roles compared with their potential.
Closer Russia-Japan ties would improve their diplomatic leverage in Beijing, Pyongyang, and Washington. They face overlapping challenges in the form of China’s rising power, North Korea’s nuclear testing and missile launches, and inattentiveness in Washington.
In terms of their bilateral opportunities, Russia would like to attract more investment from Japan to help exploit its natural resources and modernize its managerial and technological potential. Russia’s lagging development presents Moscow with a long-term challenge given China’s growing population and economy. Meanwhile, Japan faces an energy crisis due to its post-Fukushim nuclear power crisis, and would welcome receiving more Russian natural gas in particular.
For the first time in decades, Japan now has a strong leader in Abe. Whatever his other flaws, Abe has the nationalist credentials and domestic political strength to sell at home the kind of compromise settlement that Moscow has repeatedly offered—that Japan and Russia each agree to accept control over fewer than all four islands (perhaps through a creative leasing arrangement) in return for a peace treaty, stronger economic relations, and enhanced diplomatic ties.
Putin undoubtedly welcomed having both Abe and Xi at Sochi. He has seen the Games as a symbol of Russia’s re-emergence to great power status under his presidency. Facing a de facto political boycott by Western leaders alienated over the Russian government’s anti-gay legislation and other objectionable domestic policies, the presence of Abe helped bolster the beleaguered Russian president’s prestige.
Abe had originally planned not to come due to competing budget-related meetings in Tokyo, but changed his mind after the Russian side said they wanted to host a special lunch in his honor. That Abe took care to frequently praise his host also resonated well with the prickly Putin, who bristles at even well-meaning Western criticism.
Since returning to power thirteen months ago, Abe has clearly cultivated his Russian counterpart. He has now met Putin five times in the past year. At Sochi, Japanese and Russian sources confirmed that they would meet again several times this year, including through a separate trip by Putin to Japan. In contrast, Abe has faced his own de facto boycott by Chinese and South Korean leaders outraged by his visit to Yasukuni Shrine and other nationalist gestures.
With its more intractable territorial differences with China and South Korea, Japan needs reduced tensions with Russia. Having bad relations with three critically important neighbors is a bad geopolitical posture—a lesson China also recognizes, as seen by Beijing’s striving to maintain good relations with Russia as it faces tensions with India, Japan, and many other Asian nations.
Putin has not yet made major concessions regarding the islands disputed between Moscow and Tokyo, but at Sochi he and Abe agreed to intensify their search for a solution. He remarked that, thanks to recent progress, “The environment is ready for a solution to the most difficult problem.” Most importantly, Putin has resisted Beijing’s entreaties to side with China in its own territorial dispute with Japan. Russian politicians also have adopted a much less assertive response to Abe’s nationalist rhetoric and gestures.
Furthermore, although eschewing the kind of “China threat” rhetoric one hears in Tokyo and Washington, Russian policy makers have sought to diversify their foreign policy options in Asia by pursuing better relations with South Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and other Asian countries less comfortable about China’s rising strength and influence.
U.S. officials should borrow a page from Putin’s playbook. While continuing to uphold their security commitments with Japan, they should strongly encourage Tokyo to pursue deeper economic and diplomatic ties with Moscow. A de facto dampening of Russia-Japanese tensions would help moderate Chinese influence in Asia, keep Russia from becoming an economic appendage of China, and enhance Washington’s leverage in Beijing and Pyongyang at a time when U.S. diplomacy is strained by many global challenges.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.