Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 74

Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin and the newly named Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshiro Mori, agreed earlier this week to meet on April 29 in St. Petersburg. The visit will be Mori’s first as prime minister. Japanese officials were quoted as saying that they hope the informal talks will help the two new leaders establish personal ties before they meet during the July G-7 plus Russia summit in Okinawa, Japan. But they are also clearly aiming toward what they hope will be an official Russian-Japanese summit meeting between Putin and Mori sometime later in the year (Xinhua, Kyodo, April 10).

Japanese leaders have been pushing hard for a meeting with Putin in hopes of jumpstarting long-deadlocked bilateral talks on a Russian-Japanese peace treaty which would formally end World War II. The impasse has grown out of the fact that Japan is making the signing of a peace treaty dependent upon recognition by Russia (in some form) of Japanese sovereignty over the four disputed south Kuril Islands. Moscow, in turn, has insisted that it will make no territorial concessions to Japan, and has tried instead to decouple the territorial issue both from the peace treaty negotiations, and from separate discussions related to bilateral economic cooperation.

That neither side had budged from its position was suggested in late March when a Russian deputy foreign minister reiterated Moscow’s adherence to the principle of territorial integrity–a formula indicating an unwillingness by Russia to make territorial concessions to Japan. The Russian diplomat also suggested that Moscow and Tokyo should for the time being avoid such difficult questions and look instead to improve relations in other areas. In what may have been a response, Japan’s foreign minister was quoted several days later as saying that Tokyo does not plan to sign a peace treaty with Russia if that document does not include a settlement of the Kuril Islands (called the Northern Territories in Japan) territorial dispute (Russian agencies, March 23; Itar-Tass, March 25).

The inability of the two countries to resolve their differences over the territorial dispute had been one reason–another was then President Boris Yeltsin’s poor health–that Moscow and Tokyo failed to follow through on a planned summit meeting late last year. Another proposed summit date this spring fell by the wayside following Yeltsin’s surprise retirement. Whether Putin agrees to schedule a summit with Mori later this year will be one indication of the degree to which Moscow and Tokyo have managed–or not managed–to narrow their differences on this issue. There have been some hints in Moscow that Putin is now prepared to reorient Russian foreign policy toward a more “pragmatic” focus on solving the country’s economic difficulties. It nevertheless seems unlikely that Putin would agree to give up Russian territory in exchange for what would presumably be a huge amount of economic aid from Japan. For all of that, Moscow seems to be shifting its positions in Asia slightly, and Russian-Japanese relations bear watching.