Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 154

With the approach of yet another Russian-Japanese summit, this one scheduled for September 3-5 in Tokyo, government leaders from the two countries have renewed their now standard diplomatic jousting over the crucial Kuril Islands issue. Indeed, despite the catalytic effect which President Vladimir Putin’s accession to power in Russia has had on Moscow’s diplomatic ties with a number of Asian and European countries (in form if not always in substance), the Russian-Japanese talks in September look likely to remain deadlocked over the territorial issue much as they were during the final two years of former President Boris Yeltsin’s term of office. That is suggested by the fact that both governments have made clear in recent weeks their unwillingness to make any new concessions over the islands. What is somewhat different in this case, however, is not so much Putin’s arrival on the scene but the fact that there have been some recent mutterings in Tokyo about the need to soften Japan’s position on the territorial issue. Whether this first sign of dissonance will have any impact on Japan’s negotiating position at the September talks, however, remains to be seen.

The current impasse between Moscow and Tokyo has its roots in a diplomatic initiative launched in late 1997 which aimed at resolving the territorial row while reaching agreement on the text of a friendship treaty which would bring a formal end to World War II for Russia and Japan. That initial effort did lead to a significant warming of relations between the two countries. Diplomatic momentum, though, has been lost over the past year or more as Russian and Japanese diplomats have failed to resolve differences over the Kuril Islands. In a nutshell, Tokyo has offered a proposal which would redraw the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion to ultimately return to Japan the four islands, which were seized by Soviet troops at the close of World War II and are called the Northern Territories in Japan. Moscow, in turn, has offered a counterproposal recommending that the two sides now focus their attention on signing the peace treaty while deferring the territorial problem to a later date. Not surprisingly, Tokyo has refused to decouple the two issues. It has continued to make not only the signing of the peace treaty dependent upon resolution of the territorial row, but also increased financial aid to–and economic cooperation with–Russia. The two sides had originally committed themselves to signing the peace treaty by the year 2000. As that deadline passed (much to Tokyo’s consternation), the Japanese have pressed for a diplomatic breakthrough by the end of this year.

That there may, for the first time, be some dissonance in the Japanese camp was suggested on July 27, only days after the close of the G-7 summit in Okinawa, when a top official of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party in Japan said that Tokyo should not necessarily make resolution of the territorial issue a precondition for the signing of a peace treaty. The remarks by Hiromu Nonaka, secretary general of the LDP, were reportedly interpreted by some in Japan as an attempt to break the stalemate in Japanese-Russian relations and to start a genuine debate on the issue within the LDP. A further softening in the Japanese negotiating position was suggested when Japanese Deputy Foreign Minister Yutaka Kawashima told a news conference on July 31 that Tokyo should perhaps also consider allowing talks with Moscow to go beyond the year-end deadline. “It’s not as though the world will come to an end if we do not come up with something within this year. I think our dealings with Putin will be a long one,” Kawashima was quoted as saying (Reuters, August 1-2; Asahi Shimbun, August 1; Izvestia, August 2).

But other Japanese government officials have strenuously denied that Tokyo has any intention of altering its negotiating position with Moscow. In comments to reporters on July 31, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hidenao Nakagawa rejected Nonaka’s proposals and insisted that “the government’s position has not changed” vis-a-vis the territorial issue. And Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori himself, in remarks to lawmakers on August 2, was even more categorical in insisting that Japanese policy would not change. “We will continue to strive to resolve the territorial issue and then to conclude a peace treaty.” Observers in Japan suggested that the government feared a possible backlash by right-wing forces if it made any concessions on the territorial issue (Japan Times, July 29; Reuters, August 2).

The waters were further muddied last week by conflicting reports over what Putin had said to Mori regarding the territorial row during a meeting that they had on the margins of the G-7 summit. The Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun reported on August 3 that the Russian president had again proposed delaying consideration of the islands issue, while the Japanese Kyodo news agency said that Putin had called for the two countries to forego signing a full treaty and instead to conclude an “interim” pact–presumably one that excluded the territorial issue. Both of those positions are fully consistent with what has been reported to be the Russian stance on the Kurils over the past year. Nakagawa, however, jumped into the fray once again, denying on the same day the Japanese reports and insisting that Putin in fact “did not make any concrete suggestions” relating to the territorial issue or the peace treaty. According to Nakagawa, the Russian president said only that it would be difficult to conclude the treaty by the end of this year (AFP, Itar-Tass, August 3).

The foregoing suggests, as one Japanese expert was quoted as saying last week, that the most Putin can really hope to achieve during his visit to Japan will be vague pledges to improve ties. “If President Putin wished to clinch some sort of agreement, the two countries could come up with something like a ‘friendship treaty,’ which means virtually nothing,” he said (Reuters, August 2). While that would probably be a less than desirable result for the Russian president, it seems unlikely to cause too much hand wringing in Moscow. In remarks made to a Japanese TV network early last month, Putin engaged in his usual diplomatic hyperbole when he described Japan as “one of the most important partners of Russia, not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but also in the world.” he was also quoted as saying that “objectively, Russia is interested in an expansion of Japan’s political and economic influence” (AFP, July 4).

But as desirable as improved relations with Japan might be economically, Moscow seems unlikely to pay the high price of territorial concessions in order to get them. Moreover, Russia’s recently published Foreign Policy Concept appears to make clear that Russia’s relations with Japan take a clear second place in Asia to Moscow’s ties with both China and India (see the Monitor, July 12). That suggests that any breakthroughs achieved during the September summit will likely have to be the result of Japanese rather than Russian concessions on the territorial row.