Sat, 04 Jan 2003

Deal with territory issue steadily and slowly

Yoichi Funabashi The Asahi Shimbun Tokyo

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi will make an official visit to Russia in early January. After meeting with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, he will fly to Khabarovsk. It will be the first visit by a Japanese prime minister to the Russian Far East.

North Korea and oil and gas are expected to be the main items on the agenda. Iraq will also be discussed. The Russian side is sure to request Japan's cooperation for a project to link the Trans-Siberian railway with the inter-Korean railway. Of course, the territorial issue cannot be avoided.

Both the choice of topics and the timing of the meeting are good. However, when I recently exchanged views with Russian policy-makers and intellectuals in Moscow and Vladivostok, I was struck by the wide gap in their interest toward Japan and China.

Russia seems much more interested in China than it is in Japan. In fact, the lack of interest toward Japan may be a reflection of Russia's growing interest toward China.

The Putin administration's "Western policy" toward the United States and Europe is becoming clearer in the form of its support for the U.S.-led operation against terrorism, acceptance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's expansion toward Eastern Europe and membership to the World Trade Organization. However, its "Eastern policy" toward Asia remains unclear.

Still, partly out of the need to adjust interests with China, another major Eurasian power, Russia started a cooperative mechanism called "Shanghai 6," a grouping that also includes Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. But as far as Japan-Russian relations are concerned, there has been no constructive framework after the Cold War.

"Why go to the trouble to build one when things are fine as they are?" Russia seems to think, at least for now.

But what about in the long run?

Russia is expected to face the danger of "strategic hollowing out" with the advancement of depopulation in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East, the rise of China and China's expanding influence in the region, unrest among local Russian residents and a rift in domestic affairs. According to a survey, the region's population dropped one million in the last decade.

Alexei Arbatov, a member of the Russian parliament and a representative of the democratic Yabloko party, warned that if nothing is done to stop the trend, Russia would lose the Far East in 20 years.

The only way to prevent that is to develop the regional economy, Arbatov said, adding that Japan is the only potential investor. Its participation will check China's inordinate ambitions and behavior, he said.

There is also an idea to build "Pacific Russia" that engages not only Japan but also the United States. Dmitri Trenin, the author of The End of Eurasia, is also an advocate of the concept. He thinks that western Russia should get together with Europe and the United States and eastern Russia with Japan and the United States to modernize and stabilize the nation.

How can it engage Japan?

"Russia needs to do something about its crime and corruption, advance reform and democracy and settle the territorial issue," Arbatov said.

However, such views are held by a minority. At a hearing on the Northern Territories issue held in the Russian Lower House in March, members expressed negative views, saying the territorial problem has already been settled and no peace treaty is needed.

Yuri Levada, director of the Russian Center for Public and Market Research, observed that the Russian market and democracy are both incomplete and that is why the people are inclined to group hysteria. Japan has to deal with a Russia troubled with such a sense of loss and anxiety.

Nevertheless, it is important to continue calm dialog with Russia. Both North Korea and energy have to do with the vital interests of Japan and Russia. It is possible to seek common ground that would benefit both. Furthermore, it is significant to link the common ground with that of the United States and China. They must not build a relationship to contend against a common threat. They may study the formation of a power to balance with China but it must not become a threat to China.

Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East tend to broadcast that Japan and China pose threats to the region because the argument can also be used as a card to attract the attention of the central government and solicit a bigger budget. Comprising such dangers, the area will eventually emerge as a region with a strong magnetic power for Japanese foreign policy. It may also develop into a new strategic frontier for Japan.

Now is the time for Japan to define how it should involve itself with Eurasia and for what purpose while giving first consideration to Japanese national interests. Ways to settle the territorial dispute should also be worked out bearing in mind the building of such long-term strategy.

Referring to the settlement of the territorial problem, a number of Russian intellectuals used the expression "slowly but steadily." I think "but" should be replaced with "and."

If we proceed steadily, it doesn't matter if the pace is slow. Why not also think more strategically? In short, the territorial problem should be dealt with steadily, slowly and strategically.