President Putin’s visit to Singapore for the Russia-ASEAN and East Asia (EAS) Summits was a landmark event on many counts. For all Russia’s declared focus on Eurasia, particularly after the standoff with the West since 2014, most Russian attention in Asia has been to China, India, Japan and Korea. This was President Putin’s first ever visit to Singapore, his first ever participation in EAS and the first ASEAN-Russian summit in eight years. The earlier two were in 2005 and 2010, though a Russia-ASEAN Summit was held in Sochi in 2016 to commemorate 20 years of Russia-ASEAN dialogue partnership. He had bilateral meetings with the leaders of Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. The Russians believe there is an opening for their increased presence in the region, in the present context of nervousness in the region over both China’s dominance and US-China frictions (as most recently evidenced by the failure of the APEC summit in Papua New Guinea to agree on a declaration).
The Putin-Abe meeting in Singapore created a splash because of the announcement that Russia and Japan would commence dialogue on resolution of the vexed Kurile Islands dispute on the basis of their bilateral declaration of 1956. Under this agreement, the Soviet Union agreed to cede two of the four southern islands to Japan. The Soviet and Japanese parliaments ratified the declaration, but Japan backed out of it, under pressure from the US, because of concerns that a consequent peace treaty between Japan and USSR may distort the Cold War balance of power in the Pacific region. The Soviet Union (and Russia thereafter) then hardened its position. Subsequent developments like the opening of the Northern sea corridor and strategic considerations of Russia’s naval access to the western Pacific Ocean made Russian concessions on the Kuriles more unlikely.
Therefore, on the face of it, the agreement to revive the declaration is a major Russian concession. However, President Putin dampened any expectations of an early breakthrough by pointing out (at a media conference) that specific legal grounds and procedures for ceding these islands and their subsequent jurisdiction needs “separate, additional and serious assessment”.
The US will remain a major determinant of progress of these negotiations. PM Abe is reported to have assured President Putin that the United States would not put military bases on the ceded islands. This would involve amendment of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, under which the US has the right to put military bases on the islands.
The larger strategic picture is that Japan seeks to “normalize” relations with Russia to “balance” China in the region. The extent to which Russia and the US see this as a viable and desirable objective from their respective strategic perspectives is, as yet, unclear.
November 29, 2018