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Russia: Analysis From Washington -- Playing The Japanese Card

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 16 September 1996 (RFE/RL) - Moscow is once again trying to play the Japanese card to advance its political goals. But there are important reasons to believe that it will have no more success now than it has in the past.

Speaking on Friday to a Moscow symposium marking the 40th anniversary of the normalization of the two countries' diplomatic ties after World War II, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov sought Japanese support in three major areas:

Primakov sought to enlist Tokyo in Moscow's efforts to counter what Russia sees as an American effort to dominate the world without consulting others. He argued that Japan, like Russia, was one of the "overwhelming majority" of countries in the world who oppose "the trend (manifested in various forms) toward a unipolar world."

Primakov sought to recruit Tokyo as a counterweight to Chinese power and as an ally in the Asia-Pacific region. He suggested that expanded Japanese-Russian cooperation could help to stabilize the situation on the Korean peninsula and serve as the basis for the economic and political development of the Far East in general in the next century.

The Russian foreign minister sought to get Tokyo's agreement on the idea that cooperation with Russia could be the basis for the development of the Russian Far East.

Primakov noted that "we favor the territorial integrity of the country. But we have departed from a scheme when all economic relations of our Far East were implemented via Moscow" -- a virtual invitation for more Japanese investment there.

Primakov clearly believes that he can count on current Japanese unhappiness with the United States over Middle East policy, on Tokyo's interest in being the predominant power in the Far East, and on Japanese desire to cash in on the development of Russia's underdeveloped Far East.

And the Russian foreign minister pointedly argued that Russian-Japanese relations were set to take off on that basis, despite what he acknowledged was "the difficult way" in which they had proceeded in the past. He went so far as to suggest that those who had opposed closer ties in the past have now been pushed "into the background" in both capitals.

But the same problem that has blocked the development of Russian-Japanese relations in the past appears likely to restrict them in the future: the resolution of the territorial dispute between the two countries over the Kurile islands.

That involves the issue of whether Russia should return, and on what basis, a small archipelago of islands that Moscow seized at the end of World War II.

Moscow has always insisted that it will not give these islands back, while Tokyo has argued that they must be returned before any major improvement in relations is possible.

On occasion, leaders in each capital have tried -- as in Primakov's case last week -- to overlook this problem, but seldom with any success.

For both sides, in fact, this issue is probably more difficult now than at any time in the recent past. Within the last month, Tokyo has been outraged by Russian naval attacks on Japanese fishing boats. And few Russian politicians are willing to discuss territorial changes in the light of ongoing controversies over Chechen independence.

Consequently, Primakov's efforts are unlikely to bear fruit. In a message to the Moscow meeting, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Mr. Yuhiko Ikeda, said as much. Like Primakov, he said he favored the development of better relations up to and "including a solution of the territorial problem."