Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 19

But while Putin’s gesture may be appreciated in Tokyo, the manner in which he and Japanese officials choose to approach the territorial dispute will have far more to do with the success of the peace treaty negotiations. Indeed, there seems to be some confusion on each side as to precisely what its negotiating policy is on this nettlesome issue. On January 14, for example, the Russian ambassador to Japan was quoted as saying in Tokyo that the two sides were unlikely to reach agreement on a peace treaty this year, and that Moscow might suggest the signing of an interim peace accord instead (Kyodo, January 14). This week, however, Russian statements contradicted the first of those assertions. The second appeared to suffer the same fate when on January 20 the Russian Foreign Ministry denied what it said were Japanese newspaper accounts indicating Moscow’s desire to sign an interim peace agreement. A Russian Foreign Ministry communique made it clear that Moscow would stick instead to a proposal made by then President Boris Yeltsin during his November 1998 summit meeting in Moscow with Obuchi.

There appears to be some confusion in Japan as well. Reports out of Tokyo suggested on January 23 that the Japanese government was considering abandoning its own proposal–one advanced during the April 1998 Japanese-Russian summit in Kawana–in order to overcome differences on the territorial dispute and jump-start the peace talks. The 1998 Japanese proposal reportedly called for a redrawing of the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion that would ultimately return the four disputed Kuril Islands to Japan. Boris Yeltsin’s November 1998 proposal was a response to this Japanese plan–a counterproposal of sorts. It reportedly rejected the Japanese proposal (later accounts suggested that the rejection had been a blunt one), and offered instead a plan whereby the two countries would sign a peace treaty as planned by the year 2000, but put off resolving the territorial dispute to a later deadline.

Despite several years of constructive negotiations and progress on various peripheral issues, the two sides appear, in essence, to have moved toward a resolution of their differences on the crucial territorial issue. Japan continues to insist on a return of the four islands–however that return might be dressed up–and to make economic cooperation with Russian depend in part on its achievement of that goal. Moscow, in turn, has made it clear that it has no intention of making any territorial concessions to Japan, or to anyone else. Because of that, not surprisingly, Moscow has tried to decouple the territorial issue both from the peace treaty negotiations and from talks on economic aid and cooperation.

Barring a substantial change in policy by either government, there is little reason to believe that this fundamental difference can be bridged now. Moscow has intimated that it may be willing to sweeten the pot for Tokyo by supporting Japanese efforts to win a permanent seat on the UN Security Council (Itar-Tass, November 13, 1998). But it is not clear how serious that Russian offer is, or how much leverage that might afford the Russians in Tokyo. The two countries, meanwhile, continue to clash on some other key issues. The most important of them is Russia’s strong opposition to U.S.-Japanese missile defense plans, and to U.S.-Japanese military cooperation more generally. Japan, moreover, moved in December to harden its position on the issue of Russia’s war in Chechnya (Kyodo, December 17, 1999). Although Obuchi appeared later to soften this stance (Kyodo, December 26), it could still prove to be an additional irritant in Russian-Japanese relations.