Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 66

Relations between Russia and Japan took a step back late last week when talks in Tokyo failed to resolve differences between the two countries on a long-standing territorial dispute. The failure led the two sides to postpone–until “sometime in May”–a visit to Moscow by Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura which had originally been scheduled for later this month. The failure of last week’s talks also probably means that Russian President Boris Yeltsin will not travel to Japan this spring, as had been expected, for a summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. In an effort to break the deadlock between the two countries, former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto will reportedly visit Moscow late this month to hold informal talks with Kremlin leaders.

Last week’s diplomatic exchange came during two days of talks in Tokyo held under the auspices of two Russian-Japanese intergovernmental committees–one tasked with discussing border issues and the other with discussing joint economic activities on the south Kuril Islands. Not unexpectedly, it was the dispute over the islands–controlled by Russia but claimed by Japan–which torpedoed last week’s talks. Sources indicated that the two sides were unable to reconcile two plans, one proposed by Tokyo and one by Moscow, for resolving the territorial dispute. Although neither of the plans has been publicized, it is believed that the Japanese proposal calls for Russia to exercise temporary administrative control over the islands, while a redrawing of the Russian-Japanese border would return the islands eventually to Japan. A Russian counterproposal is believed to call for the two sides to sign a peace treaty by the year 2000, while putting off consideration of the territorial dispute to a later date.

The two sides reportedly did make some progress last week on several small projects–apparently involving the fishing industry–which would promote economic cooperation on the islands. They also reaffirmed their intention to pursue a 1997 agreement which calls for Russia and Japan to both resolve the territorial dispute and sign a peace treaty by the year 2000. But Japanese officials admitted that “both sides still have daggers drawn over the territorial issues” (Kyodo, Russian agencies, April 1-2).

In an effort to untrack the negotiations, Hashimoto accepted an invitation from President Boris Yeltsin to visit Moscow later this month. The two men are believed to have built a strong personal relationship during two informal summit meetings which took place in late 1997 and early 1998, and apparently hope to use their friendship to overcome the current deadlock on the islands.

It is difficult to see how the issue can be finessed, however. Russian nationalist groups, together with interested regional leaders in Russia’s Far East, have watched the Russian-Japanese negotiations with a close eye to ensure that the Kremlin makes no concessions on the territorial issue. The Japanese government, in turn, faces similar pressures at home. Those political obstacles leave both sides with little room to maneuver on the territorial issue, and could thus doom hopes that Moscow and Tokyo might sign a peace treaty which would fully normalize bilateral relations by the year 2000.