Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 201

Long-deadlocked peace treaty negotiations between Russia and Japan resumed this week and appeared to produce some small but unexpected steps by Moscow to accommodate Tokyo. The October 23-24 talks–over which Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov and his Japanese counterpart Ryozo Kato presided–marked the first negotiations between the two countries on these issues since President Vladimir Putin’s September visit to Tokyo for summit talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. These most recent talks were notable for what was reported to be Russia’s acceptance of the position that a Japanese-Russian peace treaty formally ending World War II can be finalized only if it includes a settlement of the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. This week’s talks were also noteworthy for the fact that they returned to a theme first broached unexpectedly by Putin during the September summit: the possibility that the two countries might turn to a 1956 Soviet-Japanese agreement as the basis for resolving their current difficulties with the peace treaty and the territorial issues.

There was, in fact, little information made public about the October 23-24 talks, which included meetings of the Russian-Japanese subcommittees for border delimitation and joint economic development of the South Kuril Islands. Losyukov, moreover, went out his way to state that Moscow had made no concessions and that “no new proposals were advanced” during the meetings. The Russian Foreign Ministry’s apparent willingness to link the peace treaty negotiations to the territorial row did suggest a move by Moscow in Tokyo’s direction, however. Japan has long insisted on precisely this linkage–saying that the treaty could not be finalized until the two sides resolved the question of sovereignty over the four disputed Kuril Islands–while Moscow has until now tried to deflect discussion of the territorial issue until a later date while seeking an earlier agreement on the peace treaty.

A report of the two-day talks, moreover, also contained a mention of possibly “speeding up the work on a mutually acceptable solution to the issue and signing a peace treaty.” While that wording hardly constitutes a Moscow commitment to speed up the peace treaty talks, it does seem to represent a retreat from the earlier Russian position downplaying the importance of deadlines with regard to the negotiations. Tokyo, by contrast, has consistently tried to force the pace of negotiations and has continued to hope that the talks might even be finalized by the end of this year. That is a deadline which was set several years ago by the leaders of Russia and Japan at that time, Boris Yeltsin and Ryutaro Hashimoto.

There is still little reason to believe that the 2000 deadline can be met, but the return during this week’s talks to the 1956 agreement provides another hint that the two sides may at least be restoring some momentum to the negotiation process. The 1956 joint Soviet-Japanese declaration stipulated that Russia would return to Japan two of the four disputed islands–Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets–after the conclusion of a peace treaty. In the 1960s Moscow renounced the offer, however, in response to Japan’s decision to enter into a bilateral defense treaty with the United States. The 1956 declaration had not been a factor in Russian-Japanese talks on the islands until Putin’s surprise mention of it at last month’s summit meeting. Russian diplomats have reportedly continued to look at the declaration since that time, and appear now to be offering it as the possible basis for a new approach to solving the islands row.

According to the Japan Times, during the talks in Tokyo the two sides chose to leave the interpretation of the 1956 accord untouched, opting instead only to confirm that it remains in effect and that the status of all the disputed islands are stake in the peace treaty talks. That cautious formulation appeared to reflect the different ways in which the two sides are now looking at the 1956 declaration. According to a Russian newspaper report, Tokyo believes that Moscow had promised to turn over the two islands in any event, and that discussions should now turn to the status of the remaining two islands. Moscow, in contrast, sees the offer of returning two of the islands as a “voluntary act” and one which would only follow the signing of the peace treaty. In short, Russian diplomats presumably wish to have the peace treaty signed without a subsequent obligation to deal seriously with the return of the remaining two islands. Tokyo would presumably insist on a commitment for both the return of Shikotan and the Habomai and follow-up negotiations on the status of the remaining two islands (Izvestia, October 25; AFP, October 23; Russian agencies, October 23-24; Japan Times, October 24).

That negotiations on these issues will soon resume was suggested by this week’s announcement that Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono will visit Moscow November 1-3 for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov (AFP, October 25). In addition, the two sides apparently confirmed that Putin would meet soon thereafter with Mori, this time in Brunei during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum scheduled for November 15-17. Reports said that Mori might also pay a visit to Moscow sometime before the end of this year. The Japanese have been pushing for another summit in 2000 while the Russians have been noncommittal about the matter.

The seeming success of this week’s Russian-Japanese talks also suggests that the two countries have largely put aside the spy scandal that rocked relations only days after Putin’s September summit visit. The spy row, which involved the arrest of a Japanese military officer on charges of handing over classified information to a Russian naval attaché, led Tokyo to cancel a pair of high-level meetings between military officials from the two countries (see the Monitor, September 21). On October 16, however, Colonel General Leonid Ivashov–the hardline head of the Russian Defense Ministry’s department for international military cooperation–traveled to Tokyo for talks on a November visit to Japan by Defense Minister Igor Sergeev. Plans for the visit were apparently not finalized, but the fact that preparations are going forward suggests that Moscow and Tokyo hope to restore momentum to an earlier agreed upon program of military exchanges as well (Russian agencies, October 16).