How is Suga Crafting Japan’s Policies towards Russia?
Prof Rajaram Panda

After Yoshihide Suga became Japan’s Prime Minister following the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Abe Shinzo with little experience in foreign diplomacy, questions were raised if he would be competent to handle Japan’s foreign relations. What has transpired in the past three months or so since Suga has been in office reveals that he has not fared badly. Not only Suga has maintained continuity with Abe’s foreign policy but also he has started to leave his own footprint in the foreign policy domain. This commentary is focused on how Suga is navigating Japan’s relations with Russia in the contemporary complex world. This, despite while praising Abe’s leadership diplomacy on 12 September 2020 as amazing, Suga was unsure if he could match that. Yet, his report card in foreign policy dealing so far has been reasonably good.

Before assessing Suga’s dealings with Russia, it might be instructive to examine the overall trajectory of Japan positioning in the foreign policy domain. First: Abe succeeded to some extent in giving a new orientation to Japan’s military posture, though he could not succeed in revising Article 9 of the Constitution because of the complex constitutional process and Suga too is unlikely to do anything better. Abe succeeded in achieving his objective partially by reinterpreting the Constitution and giving a new meaning to collective self-defence. Suga is not expected to go any further. Second: Abe failed to resolve the abduction issue of Japanese nationals by North Korea, a promise he had made to the families of the abductees. Suga too is not expected to make much headway on this either. Third: Abe failed to have a summit meeting with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un despite that Kim had summit meetings with the Presidents of the United States, South Korea, Russia and China. Suga too is unlikely to have an audience with the North Korean leader.

So, where is Suga expected to fare better than his predecessor? Relations with the US shall remain robust as has been in the past driven by geopolitical compulsions and other strategic interests. As regards relations with the ASEAN grouping, Suga proved his focus by choosing to make his first ever overseas visits to Vietnam and Indonesia and so the priority focus shall remain on Asia as before. As regards ties with India, it shall only scale greater height in all dimensions. As regards China, it shall be a love-hate relationship as either cannot do with without the other and have no choice other than to make compromises and adjustments on issues they differ. That leaves relations with Russia, which shall remain as a real challenge and where Suga’s leadership shall be tested.

Legacy Abe left in Dealing with Russia

As regards dealing with Russia, Suga cannot afford to have a honeymoon in the foreign policy domain. Like in the Korean Peninsula when the Korean War of the 1950-53 ended with an armistice but without a peace treaty, Japan-Russia relations remain soured for decades because the Kurile Islands dispute remain as the main stumbling block to signing a permanent World War II peace treaty. A group of four islands, namely Iturup, Kunashir, Shikotan and Habomai, is collectively referred to as the Southern Kurils by Russia and the Northern Territories by Japan remain disputed. Currently, these four islands chainoff Hokkaido are administered by Russia but claimed by Japan. Russia insists that its sovereignty over the islands, which legally became a part of the USSR after World War II, is undisputed.

In his first policy speech to the Japanese Diet on 25th October Suga promised his government’s determination to resolve the territorial dispute with Russia and aimed for comprehensive development of relations with Russia, including the signing of a peace agreement. Suga said: "We need to achieve closure in the talks on the Northern Territories, instead of postponing it for future generations. With the aid of frank dialogue at the level of top officials, I will strive for comprehensive development of relations with Russia, including the signing of a peace agreement."1 Earlier on 29 September, in his first telephone talks with Suga after he took office, Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed commitment to continued boosting of all aspects of the bilateral cooperation in the interests of peoples in both countries and the Asia-Pacific region in general.

In November 2018, Abe and Putin had agreed to accelerate peace treaty talks on the basis of a Soviet-era joint declaration. The document, signed in 1956,2 stipulates among other things that the Soviet Union would transfer the two disputed islands — Habomai and Shikotan — to Japan following the conclusion of a peace treaty. The agreement by the two leaders to use the declaration as the basis for peace negotiations spurred a series of meetings held the following year by Putin and Abe and their foreign ministers. But the outcome did not yield any result.3 During Putin’s visit to Japan in 2016, Putin expressed his intention to find a solution to the years-long dispute and both sides were close to sign a peace treaty in November 2018 but the escalating tensions in relations between Russia and the US over Crimea prevented Moscow and Tokyo from signing a peace treaty. Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 worsened relations with Washington. Moscow aired concerns that the US may build military bases in the Northern Territories if the islands are transferred to Japan. In fact frictions between the US and Russia over Crimea was a major factor why no progress on the territorial issue was possible despite Japan-Russia summit in November 2018.

After Putin’s 2016 visit to Japan, the two sides had agreed to develop joint projects on the disputed islands. Abe had proposed an eight-point plan for economic cooperation with Russia and a ‘new approach’ to talks with Moscow on the islands and a peace treaty. Then in 2018, in Singapore, in a reversal of his stance, Abe departed from Japan’s basic course to demand the return of the four islands. Soon it transpired that the issue is back to square one with neither side yielding space.4

When Abe had met Putin in November 2018 in Singapore, he had even promised not to allow the US to station troops in the islands if they are handed over to Japan. What Abe had in mind was that he wanted to improve relations with Russia to counter a rising China. Any agreement involving transfer of sovereignty to Japan would have to address whether the US-Japan security treaty, the core of Japan's diplomacy, would apply, including whether Washington would have the right to put military bases on the islands. The isles have strategic value for Russia, ensuring naval access to the western Pacific.5 After Abe realized this, he was quick to retract from his earlier position of letting Russia know that no US troops shall be stationed in the islands if the islands are handed over as the 1956 joint declaration categorically mentioned that then Soviet Union agreed it would hand over two smaller islands after a peace treaty formally ending the war had been concluded.

For over 70 years, Tokyo and Moscow have failed to demarcate a border because of the Northern Territories issue. The 1956 joint declaration states that Habomai and Shikotan islands would be handed over to Japan after a peace treaty is signed. Both sides have interpreted differently, rendering the 1956 declaration superfluous.

Japan has long insisted that its sovereignty over all four islands must be confirmed before a peace treaty is signed. Subsequently, Japan changed its position conceding to a “two-plus-alpha” formula according to which Russia shall handover two smaller islands and some sort of visa-free access to the larger islands, plus joint economic project.6 Though Abe was keen to resolve the issue, the issue is too complicated for a breakthrough.

Suga’s Options

Against this background, what could be Suga’s approach in dealing with Russia and address the territorial issue? And what lessons Suga might have learnt from his predecessor’s Russia policy? From all indicators it could transpire that Suga would adopt a soft approach towards Russia keeping in mind the China challenge as it cannot afford to have two big hostile neighbours. The focus might be more on development of projects for economic cooperation with the hope that such an approach would pave the way for a solution on the disputed islands issue. Suga’s pragmatic approach to develop economic cooperation by investing in projects could be prelude to a new thinking on Russia’s part to the possibility of returning the islands to Japan.

Can one expect then any departure from the policy adopted by his predecessor Abe in Suga’s Russia policy? The short answer is NO. Suga’s chief cabinet secretary Katsunobu Kato remarked that Japan’s strategy to resolve the islands issue and then signing a peace treaty remains unchanged. That Suga retained the diplomatic team that Abe had chosen to deal with Russia is indication to the continuation of Abe’s Russia policy. Foreign Minister ToshimitsuMotegi along with top career diplomats Takeo Akiba and Takeo Mori shall form part of Suga’s diplomatic team that shall continue the negotiations with Russia. Despite this, Russia in early 2020 has carried out constitutional amendments that include a ban on giving away any part of the country’s territory. With this, Putin is unlikely to soften his stance thus leaving the territorial issue in limbo. It is possible that Suga fares no better than his predecessor in crafting Japan’s policy towards Russia.

In all fairness, it is in the interest of Suga administration and Japan’s national interests that the issues of North Korea and territorial issue with Russia is relegated to low foreign policy priorities as no early resolution appears to be on the horizon. Suga is advised to consider keeping Japan’s alliance relationship on track and also focus on deepening ties with the ASEAN, India and other democracies in the Indo-Pacific region.

  1. “New Japanese PM plans to finalize talks on Kuril Islands”, 26 October 2020,;
  2. The Joint Declaration by Japan and the USSR of October 19, 1956 ended the state of war and re-established diplomatic and consular relations between the two countries. In the Joint Declaration, Japan and the USSR agreed to continue negotiations on the conclusion of a peace treaty after the reestablishment of normal diplomatic relations, and the USSR also agreed to hand over the islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty. The Joint Declaration by Japan and the USSR was ratified by the Japanese Parliament on December 5, 1956, and by the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR on December 8, 1956. Instruments of ratification were exchanged in Tokyo on December 12, 1956. In 1960, in connection with the conclusion of the new Japanese-US Security Treaty, the Soviet Union stated that the return of the islands of Habomai and Shikotan to Japan would be conditional upon the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Japanese territory. In response, the Government of Japan raised the objection that the terms of the Joint Declaration between Japan and the USSR could not be changed unilaterally, because it was an international agreement that had been ratified by the Parliaments of both countries. The Soviet side later asserted that the territorial issue in Japanese-Soviet relations had been resolved as a result of World War II and such an issue did not exist. For details and further developments, see

  5. “Japan PM Abe tells Russia's Putin no US bases on disputed isles if handed over”, 16 November 2018,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

Image Source: MOFA, Japan

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