Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 122

Relations between Russia and Japan teetered toward a breakdown this week, despite an unexpected meeting in Cologne between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The meeting was a brief one–a ten-minute tete-a-tete which occurred on the sidelines of the Group of Seven summit. It was arranged, moreover, at the last minute, and came after the Kremlin had repeatedly rebuffed appeals from Tokyo for direct talks between the two leaders. And when the meeting finally did occur, the Kremlin appeared to use it to put off once again another and more important request from Tokyo: to set a date for a long-planned Russian-Japanese summit.

Relations between Japan and Russia came out of the deep freeze in 1997. At that time, Tokyo launched a new policy toward Russia which resulted in a series of summit meetings and in considerable progress toward the signing of a Japanese-Russian peace treaty formally ending World War II. The two sides could never resolve their differences over the key obstacle to the peace treaty, however: the dispute over the Russian-controlled south Kuril Islands. An unpublished Japanese proposal reportedly called for a redrawing of the Japanese-Russian border in a fashion which would ultimately return the islands to Japan. A Russian counter-proposal–also unpublished–reportedly urged signing the peace treaty while putting off a resolution of the islands dispute to a later date. The year 2000 deadline, set by the two countries to sign the peace treaty, is meanwhile fast approaching.

Last year, following a summit meeting in Moscow between Obuchi and Yeltsin, there was still talk that the next consultations between the two men would occur in the spring of this year, as had been planned earlier. Since then, however, Moscow has put off scheduling the meeting; some reports said it could occur this fall, others that it might happen before the end of the year. That pattern was repeated this past week. Yeltsin reportedly refused in Cologne to finalize an autumn summit meeting, though Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin yesterday appeared to suggest that the president’s visit to Japan would occur at that time. Japanese government sources, meanwhile, say that Tokyo is preparing for a fall visit, although they seem to have no official basis for doing so (Kyodo, Russian agencies, June 20; Itar-Tass, June 23).

The territorial issue appears to be the reason for Moscow’s ambivalence. Although Obuchi was quoted after the Cologne meeting as saying that Russia and Japan would indeed sign the peace treaty before the year 2000 (Xinhua, June 20), Russian sources painted a less rosy picture. According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin, Yeltsin had reiterated during his talks with Obuchi that Russia’s position vis-a-vis the territorial issue has not changed. That suggests the two sides remain at an impasse over the islands, and thus over the signing of the peace treaty (Itar-Tass, June 23). Barring an unlikely concession by one side or the other, there seems to be little incentive, therefore, for Yeltsin to travel to Tokyo. An added disincentive, moreover, is Moscow’s displeasure over Japanese-U.S. plans to increase their defense cooperation. China has joined Moscow in objecting to the Japanese-U.S. defense plans.