TOKYO, June 1 (RIA Novosti political commentator Dmitri Kosyrev).
Although it should be a routine event in the grand scale of international diplomacy, Russian President Vladimir Putin's upcoming visit to Japan is turning into something of a diplomatic intrigue extending far beyond the realm of bilateral relations of two great powers in Asia.
The visit made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to Tokyo, which concluded on Tuesday, clearly showed both countries have a very serious view on the presidential visit. It has been decided, in principle, that the visit will take place by the end of the year, and the coordination of possible dates remains a purely technical issue. The preparation of a large amount of documents, though, still requires considerable work. Lavrov made particular mention of documents related to the high-tech sphere. A series of additional meetings will be needed to coordinate them.
With trade reaching almost $9 billion last year (a 40% increase on 2003), Russia and Japan have clearly become real economic partners, even though this figure is a long way behind Russian-Chinese trade, which is quickly approaching the $20 billion mark. Plans announced by Toyota and Honda to start the assembly of their cars in Russia represent only the tip of the iceberg.
That means the entire scheme of Russian-Japanese relations developed during the 1990s is changing. At that time, relations were built primarily around the existing territorial dispute (over four southern Kuril Islands) and the development of economic and other ties looked like a forced and trivial concession made by Japan in exchange for the progress on the main issue. Russian diplomatic sources now say that Japan's political circles have tacitly admitted that Moscow was right from the start by insisting that the political issues could only be solved in an atmosphere of cooperation in all spheres.
Nothing changed this time, either. Amid the preparations for Putin's visit, the sides still cannot make any progress toward resolving the territorial dispute. Lavrov said at the Tokyo press conference: "Both sides are continuing to maintain their positions, which remain diametrically opposed." His Japanese counterpart, Nobutaka Machimura, told reporters: "This is not an easy issue for which we can find a quick, specific solution." In making these statements, the diplomats dispelled rumors about new initiatives put forward either by Japan or Russia, initiatives that simply paraphrased previous statements.
The authorities in any country must show their electorate from time to time that they are willing to satisfy the current demands of voters. Sources in the Japanese government say that Machimura was elected to parliament from Hokkaido, Japan's northernmost island, where the movement for "the return of Northern territories" is particularly proactive. In addition, Japanese diplomacy finds itself in a situation at present when it has to show some, albeit a modicum of success to the Japanese voters and the world in general. Given the recent deterioration of Japan's relations with its Asian neighbors, China and both Koreas, it will be a serious mistake for it to become involved in a disagreement with Russia. Japan must at long last think about its future role in the world.
On the eve of the 60th anniversary of the foundation of the United Nations, Beijing, an ally of Russia, is threatening to veto Japan's long-awaited permanent membership of the UN Security Council, while Tokyo has already agreed that even if it joined the Council it would have no right of veto. However, the changes facing Japan are much deeper. Due to its dependent foreign policy, Japan still has not managed to take advantage of its still existing role as the second largest economy in the world in terms of GDP. China, which is quickly becoming a key power in Asia and the world, will probably take over this position in the next 15-20 years. In addition, Japan is facing the 2024 problem, when, according to predictions made by the McKinsey Global Institute, the average age of a Japanese citizen will be 50, while in 2006 the death rate of the aging nation will exceed the birth rate and the Japanese population will start declining. The wealth of the country in monetary terms will diminish by 0.4% annually. Japan will not be able to remain the largest buyer of U.S. Treasury bonds, which currently helps America to finance its budget deficit. Japan will be a different country, and the world will change as well.
With this reality at hand, the issue of the current increase in nationalistic attitudes among the Japanese population seems insignificant. Japan will need a new foreign policy based on a system of solid partnership with its neighbors, including Russia.