Northeast Asia is a neighborhood of titans: Japan, the economic superpower, Russia, the former-but-still-formidable superpower, and China, the would-be superpower.
Two legs of this triangle of relationships are fairly solid - China has improved relations with Tokyo and Moscow in recent years. Now Russia and Japan, technically still enemies since they lack a post-World War II peace treaty, are trying harder to get along.
This past weekend Russia's president and Japan's prime minister met in a "no-necktie" summit in the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk. Their talks illustrate how an era of peaceful linkages is slowly taking hold in a region where the three major players have all gone to war with each other at least once in the past hundred years.
Russia's Boris Yeltsin and Japan's Ryutaro Hashimoto have many problems to work through before they can turn an apparently pleasant personal relationship into a major partnership between their two countries. As in recent meetings between President Clinton and China's Jiang Zemin, the Russian and Japanese leaders agreed to install a hot line between their offices - the sort of symbolic gesture that indicates the absence of more substantive accomplishments.
But seen in a broader light, the new spirit of friendship between Moscow and Tokyo is spurred by the need to think regionally and globally in an economically interdependent world, countries are laying aside old animosities in favor of new trade agreements.
Closer ties 'a big change'
Closer communion between Russia and Japan "would be a big change in international relations - if it goes through," says Vladimir Ivanov, a Russian academic at the Economic Research Institute for Northeast Asia, a think tank in Niigata, Japan. But first, he says, people in both countries must get over a history of mutual wariness.
Analysts such as Mr. Ivanov say the United States is encouraging stronger ties between Moscow and Tokyo. Recently, Washington has been trying to broaden its existing security alliance with Japan and has promoted ways to integrate Russia in the world community.
Tense regional conflicts
Northeast Asia contains the tensest border in the world - the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas. Further south lies the possibility of confrontation between China and its "renegade province," otherwise known as the increasingly independent island of Taiwan. If any region needs strong relationships among its major countries, it is Asia.
It's way too soon to tell what sort of benefits might come from friendlier ties between Russians and Japanese, but diplomats, at least, are upbeat.
"Japan and Russia are plunging into a new phase, a new era," swoons one Japanese Foreign Ministry official who agreed to be interviewed on condition of anonymity. A group of government officials and academic experts, who met this July for a workshop organized by Ivanov's think tank in Niigata, agreed that the two nations are moving out of a phase of "political accommodation" and into one of "cooperative engagement."
These terms are dry and diplomatic, but there is at least the potential for what Hollywood would call a beautiful friendship. Russia, for instance, teems with natural resources such as oil and natural gas, and Japan is a country chronically concerned about its energy dependence on the rest of the world. Russia is desperate for the investment and expertise necessary to transform its outmoded and lackluster economy; Japanese firms could provide both if they could be convinced that conditions were secure enough to enter the Russian market.
In less tangible ways, too, the two nations are fitting partners. Japan has spent the past 50 years developing nearly unparalleled economic might, without engaging in the kind of strategic thinking that befits a powerful nation. Meanwhile Russia, thanks to its former incarnation as part of the Soviet Union, has a pitiful economy and a surfeit of strategists.
But there are good reasons why the two countries lack even something as basic as a World War II peace treaty. As the war ended, Soviet troops occupied three islands and a group of islets just off Hokkaido, the northernmost part of the Japanese archipelago.
Called the Northern Territories by Japan and the Southern Kuriles by Russia, the dispute over who owns the islands has stymied improved relations for decades. For now, however, politicians in both countries have made initial progress, without being bombarded by conservatives, although analysts caution that leaders cannot go too far too fast.
Peace treaty by 2000
In Krasnoyarsk, Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Hashimoto pledged new efforts to resolve the issue and conclude a peace treaty by 2000, as well as a package of other measures to strengthen mutual interest between Japanese and Russians.
While Russia's resources are appealing to Japanese government officials and corporate executives, they are a wary lot. "The summit is a ritual," grumbles a Russia expert at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies who asked not to be quoted by name. He says Japanese involvement in Russia's economy will remain minuscule - currently less than 0.01 percent of Japanese foreign direct investment goes to Russia - as long as Moscow remains overly "bureaucratic" in dealing with overseas investors.
Still, big Japanese trading houses like Tokyo-based Nissho Iwai Corp. sense a brighter future. "There's no Russian who doesn't know Sony or Panasonic," says Susumu Yoshida, a Nissho Iwai adviser. "Big companies are taking steps to go into Russia."