Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 236

For the second year running, the Japanese government will apparently be frustrated in its effort to finalize a peace treaty with Russia–a treaty which would also resolve a long-standing and crucial dispute over ownership of the four disputed South Kuril Islands. Under the terms of an agreement which the Russian and Japanese leaders of the time–President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto–signed in 1997, Moscow and Tokyo had committed themselves to signing a peace treaty formally ending World War II by the end of 1999. But, despite a series of high-profile summit meetings over several years and a clear warming in relations, the two sides were unable to resolve their differences over the four islands–known in Japan as the “Northern Territories”–which the Soviet Union seized from Japan at the close of World War II. With the passage of last year’s deadline and the accession of a new president in Russia, however, Japan recast the deadline and redoubled its efforts to complete the peace treaty negotiations by the end of 2000. And, despite four meetings this year between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, what had been clear over at least several months has now been formalized: The two countries will not meet this latest deadline for finalizing the peace treaty.

The Japanese, who have pushed much harder than the Russians in the negotiating process, had hoped in the wake of a meeting between Putin and Mori in Brunei last month that the two men might at least take one more crack at the problem by holding a formal Japanese-Russian summit meeting before the end of the year. Such a summit, however, required a preparatory visit to Moscow by Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono. There had been some hope in Tokyo that Moscow might be willing to schedule such a visit in mid-December. Indeed, as late as December 4 the Russian diplomat who oversees relations with Japan, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov, suggested that Kono could arrive in Moscow soon after December 18. Moreover, on December 7 Kono himself was quoted as saying that he believed Moscow and Tokyo might still meet the December 31 peace treaty deadline. He said he planned to visit Moscow later in the month (AFP, December 4).

That none of this was likely to happen was suggested on December 9, however, when Russian diplomatic sources were quoted as saying that Kono’s visit would probably be postponed until mid-January of 2001. While the sources attributed the postponement to a busy diplomatic schedule, other observers reportedly said that the delay was in fact a result of the two sides’ failure to narrow their differences on the territorial issue (Russian agencies, December 9). The issue was perhaps already moot at this point; reports earlier this month indicated that Mori had acknowledged he would most likely not be visiting Russia until mid-February. Then, earlier today, this delayed timetable appeared confirmed when Kono announced publicly that he would visit Russia on January 16-17 (Kyodo, December 19).

Meanwhile, there have been some suggestions in recent weeks that the two sides may again be hardening their positions with regard to the territorial issue. Talks had reached an impasse by the end of 1999 over conflicting Russian and Japanese proposals regarding the future of the islands. Tokyo had called for redrawing the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion which would ultimately return the islands to Japan. Moscow, in turn, had urged signing the peace treaty (or an interim treaty) by the year 2000 deadline date, while postponing discussions of the territorial issue until a later date. The newly elected Putin made an apparent effort to break this deadlock earlier in the year, however, when he reportedly raised the prospect of a return by Russia to Japan of two of the four disputed islands. He based that proposal on a 1956 Soviet-Japanese accord which had stipulated just that (see the Monitor, September 6, 14).

That Moscow and Tokyo had run into fresh disagreements was suggested in late November, however, when Losyukov said that the two countries were interpreting the 1956 agreement differently. The Japanese government insisted a day later, on December 1, that there was no divergence of opinion on the matter. The two sides appeared nevertheless to be at odds on the following point. Japan believed that the return of the two islands was only a prelude to negotiations which would eventually bring all four islands back under Japanese sovereignty. Russia, by contrast, was apparently arguing that the terms of the 1956 agreement permitted Moscow to retain control over two of them (AFP, December 1).

The apparent disagreement deepened on December 4 when the Russian Foreign Ministry officially denied Japanese reports that Moscow was considering the handover of even two islands to Tokyo. Losyukov made much the same point during an appearance before Russian lawmakers on December 9, when he went out of his way to emphasize that Moscow has no intention of giving up its sovereignty over the south Kurils. The Japanese side, meanwhile, appeared to be hardening its own position. Russian sources reported on December 9 that Kono had made it clear to journalists in Tokyo the determination of the Japanese government to reclaim all four disputed islands. He reportedly rejected the notion that Japan might settle for first receiving just two (Russian agencies, December 9).

What these December developments mean for Russian-Japanese ties is unclear. The two sides had appeared to restore some momentum to their bilateral relations during a late November visit by Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev to Japan (see the Monitor, November 30). A hardening of positions on the Kurils Islands issue now could waste some of the benefits of that trip. Against this background, Kono’s January visit to Moscow may provide the first reliable indication of whether these latest developments are just a bit of diplomatic jousting, or whether they mark a new impasse in the peace treaty negotiations. If it is the latter, then it would be no surprise if, after Kono’s visit, Moscow moved to postpone until an even later date the next Japanese-Russian summit meeting between Kono and Putin.