Tensions are running high in northeast Asia, yet remarkably little diplomacy is taking place. China and Japan are not communicating and there are only infrequent political exchanges between South Korea and Japan. Surprisingly, a notable exception to this dearth of diplomacy is the current dance between Shinzo Abe’s Japan and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Asia still struggles with its historical legacy, and the Russo-Japanese experience is no exception. Russia and Japan were the belligerents in one of the most spectacular naval battles of all time – the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, in which the Russian fleet was annihilated by a tactically superior Japanese squadron. Their traumatic history has proved difficult to overcome. In the last days of the second world war, the Soviet Union seized four Japanese islands in the Kurils in the northwest Pacific Ocean and expelled the Japanese citizens who lived there. These four islands (also known as the “Northern Territories” by the Japanese) have been lodged like a bone in the throat of Russo-Japanese relations ever since.