Japan and Russia move closer to peace treaty, but why now?

News & Insights
May 30, 2013

Japan and Russia never concluded a peace treaty at the end of the Second World War. The USSR’s seizure of a group of islands (called the Southern Kurils in Russia, and the Northern Territories in Japan) in the war’s final days became a rift in bilateral relations that no pair of leaders since then has been able to solve. But last month the two nations moved a step closer to formal peace with the issuing of a joint statement after meetings between Russian president Vladimir Putin and Japan’s premier, Shinzo Abe.

Most observers blame domestic concerns for the lack of a peace treaty after more than 60 years; neither country’s leaders want to appear weak to their own constituents. But economic concerns could trump electoral calculations and national pride. With the closure of most of Japan’s nuclear power plants following the 2011 disaster, Japan has become the leading buyer of Russian natural gas. Closer ties would also benefit the two countries in their dealings with China and the Koreas. And both Russia and Japan would like to start developing the disputed territories, something that won’t likely happen without a demarcation. Right now it’s hard to say whether the benefits of a new treaty will be enough to overcome decades of inertia. As Temple University’s Tina Burrett argues:

“Currently a lack of settlement is not preventing either state from pursuing their national economic goals. Economic ties between Russia and Japan have strengthened since the mid-2000s, despite worsening political relations between 2010 and 2012. Growing bilateral trade and investment removes a possible incentive for Moscow to offer territorial concessions and renders a settlement unlikely in the short term. In the long term, changing geopolitical dynamics in Northeast Asia — in particular a common interest in counterbalancing the influence of China — may offer a more promising route to resolution of the dispute.”