Can space bring two old frenemies Japan and Russia closer together?

The two nations are examining joint projects based at Russia’s Vostochny Cosmodrome

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 3:49pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 October, 2016, 10:11pm

Japan and Russia have opened talks on cooperation in outer space projects and technology, the latest area to be on the table ahead of Vladimir Putin’s state visit to Tokyo in December.

The two nations are examining joint projects based at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, in the Amur region of the Russian Far East. Hiroshige Seko, Japan’s minister for economic cooperation with Russia, will visit Moscow in November and assist with the creation of a working group to draw up more detailed proposals for collaboration.

“The Japanese have done a tremendous job in developing their space industry on a shoestring budget,” said Lance Gatling, an aerospace analyst and president of Tokyo-based Nexial Research Inc.

“They have worked very hard for their achievements to date and had some success with commercial programmes, but not really enough to launch the industry in a big way.”

Japan’s Tanegashima Space Centre is “not ideal” because it’s too far north of the equator for larger telecommunications satellites, Gatling said, while launch sites further north - such as in the Russian Far East - are ideal for space vehicles in polar orbits.

Russia, for its part, is apparently looking to claw back some of the 300 billion rubles (HK$36.98 billion) that it has invested in the facility. Media reports suggest that corruption has also cost the project billions.

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Japan and Russia already have a firm relationship in space projects, with Japanese astronauts travelling to the International Space Station aboard Soyuz capsules, while Tokyo will be hoping to increase launches of domestically produced satellites.

Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister hopes to use the meeting with Putin in December to finally reach agreement with Russia on a treaty that will finally officially end second world war hostilities between the two nations. Moscow and Tokyo have failed to sign a peace treaty as Japan has demanded the return of four island groups off northern Hokkaido that were seized by Soviet troops in the dying days of the conflict.

Abe told Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich in a meeting in Kyoto on Sunday, that he hopes to “produce results in wide areas such as politics and economy and make (the talks with Putin) an opportunity to develop Japan-Russia relations comprehensively,” according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.

With the peace treaty, Abe is hoping that a compromise might be reached on the Kuril Islands.

Moscow is unlikely to hand over all the territory that it took in 1945, although there are hopes in Japan that it might return the two smaller groups - Shikotan and the Habomai islets - and consent to joint economic development of the region.

Discussions on space projects are seen as serving as a confidence-building measure between the two governments. Talks on the islands have been proposed in the past but bilateral relations slumped after Japan sided with Europe and the United States after Russia’s intervention in the civil war in the Ukraine.

“There will always be links between geo-political positions and this kind of industrial collaboration,” said Gatling.

“Russia is trying hard to modernise its space industry and Japan has some very good technology, but not a lot of outlets for it at the moment,” he said. “With countries like South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore becoming more interested in investing in space technology, I can see serious discussions between Russia and Japan about commercial opportunities arising from this alliance.”

The two nations will need to tread more carefully when it comes to rocket and satellite technology that can have military applications, Gatling pointed out.

Additional reporting by Kyodo