Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 52

Japanese Foreign Ministry sources have indicated that, despite some public statements to the contrary, Tokyo remains wary about a proposal by Moscow to develop the disputed Kuril Islands jointly with Russia. In remarks made anonymously to the Kyodo news agency on March 14, Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo underlined especially that any talks between Russia and Japan on economic development of the islands must be kept separate from currently ongoing negotiations between the two countries on a peace treaty. That would mean that talks on economic development would also be kept separate from efforts to resolve the territorial dispute between the two countries over the islands. (Kyodo, March 14)

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov first proposed joint economic development of the Kuril Islands — called the Northern Territories in Japan — during a visit to Tokyo in November 1996. "We proposed this, not as a substitution for a settlement of the [territorial] problem, but as a means to improve overall ties regarding the islands," Primakov told reporters at that time. He suggested that possible joint projects might be launched in the areas of fishing, fish processing and tourism.

Then Japanese Foreign Minister Yukihiko Ikeda said at the time that Japan would be willing to consider any detailed proposals of this type made by Russia. It was also apparent, however, that Tokyo felt it had to move with caution on the proposal. Joint development of the islands might be perceived as a concession by Japan that weakened its claim to the islands. That would undermine not only its talks with Russia on the disposition of the Kuril Islands, but might also adversely affect Japan’s position in similar territorial disputes with South Korea, China and Taiwan. (Reuter, Itar-Tass, November 15, 1996)

There has been little substantive change in the stances of the two countries on the issue of joint development since Primakov’s 1996 visit. Russia has continued to talk about development, but has not submitted detailed proposals on specific cooperation projects. Japan has remained wary of the idea. Indeed, the unnamed Japanese Foreign Ministry sources said on March 14 that Japan still fears that negotiations on joint economic activities would detract from talks on the sovereignty issue. They also expressed Tokyo’s concern that Russia may be aiming to acquire economic assistance from Japan in developing the islands — without intending to make concessions on the territorial question. (Kyodo, March 14)

The standoff on joint economic activities comes despite significant diplomatic progress made in other areas by the two countries. On March 14, Japanese Foreign Ministry officials made public the itinerary for Boris Yeltsin’s scheduled April 11-13 visit to Japan. It will be the second "informal" summit between Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. The first, held in the Russian city of Krasnoyarsk last November, gave a major boost to Russian-Japanese relations. The Kuril Islands territorial dispute nevertheless remains an obstacle to the signing of a peace treaty that would officially bring World War II to a close for the two countries. The disputed islands were seized by Soviet troops in the final days of the war.

Russian Capitalist Falls on Hard Times.