But going beyond energy and Arctic treasures, Russia views Japan as a suitable economic partner which can help to diversify its industrial base. Urban development, medical services, electronics and components for aircraft manufacturing are high on Moscow's agenda. That is why Mr. Abe brought with him a group of 120 Japanese businessmen when he visited Russia in April of last year.
Putting the border issue aside
All this does not mean that the two countries are anywhere close to resolving their border problems. Mr. Abe is well aware of that when he warns that "there is no magic wand to reach a rapid solution." But he says that he is personally involved in building up the political will to break the deadlock.
Technical negotiations are continuing, and Moscow and Tokyo have agreed to "move in the direction of strategic partnership." As part of that agreement, the first "two-plus-two" meeting of foreign and defense ministers was held in Tokyo last November – a forum Japan only has with the U.S. and Australia. Similar meetings are scheduled in Russia next April.
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Realizing that it will take time to find a mutually acceptable solution to border issues, Russia and Japan have apparently decided to work on a broad range of projects in order to strengthen trust and their weak economic ties.
Last year, for example, Japan's exports to Russia were less than one-tenth of what Japan sells to China, and Russian exports to Japan accounted for only about 13 percent of what Japan buys from China. But with a 40 percent increase in Russian sales to Japan, it seems that Russia's importance as Japan's energy supplier and economic partner is definitely on the rise.
Can a friend of my enemy be my friend?
Looking at all this, it clearly seems that Russia and Japan have gone back to the approach that characterized the Sino-Russian and Sino-Japanese relations since the 1960s.
It took Russia and China 40 years of tough negotiations to solve the border issues along their more than 4,000 km frontier. During that time, relations between China and Russia went through periods of extreme tensions, but major military clashes were avoided. Beijing and Moscow now have very close economic, political and military ties.
China and Japan agreed in the 1970s on a similar approach to a much smaller border problem in the South China Sea. Since then, the two countries have become each other's main trading partners and big destinations for visitors and even immigrants.
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Here is what Mr. Abe says: "With our deep interdependence in a variety of areas, the two countries (i.e., Japan and China) are too closely connected to be separated. Moreover, let me state clearly that, as a matter of reality, the two countries could never clash. We must not let that happen."
I think Mr. Abe is right, and I would guess that his Chinese counterpart agrees with him.
But where does that leave the Russia-Japan relations? Can Russia have friendly relations with Japan while maintaining friendly relations with China, presumably Japan's enemy?
Most analysts think that is impossible. They tend to see Russia-Japan ties as a counterweight to rising China.
I believe that is a simplistic binary reasoning. There is much more to this complex triangle, and I would not exclude the possibility of a more constructive relationship among these three economies.
Michael Ivanovitch is president of MSI Global, a New York-based economic research company. He also served as a senior economist at the OECD in Paris, international economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and taught economics at Columbia.