Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 94

Relations between Russia and Japan took a potentially troublesome turn over the weekend when the governments of the two countries clashed orally over the status of negotiations aimed at resolving a long-standing territorial dispute over control of the four South Kuril Islands. The issue was clouded further, moreover, by indications that Japanese domestic political infighting may be spilling over into Tokyo’s conduct of foreign policy with Russia. These latest developments reinforce the impression that relations between Tokyo and Moscow could be in for a difficult period in the immediate aftermath of Junichiro Koizumi’s recent election as Japanese prime minister. In remarks made late last month, both Koizumi and his newly installed foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, had suggested that Tokyo would take a harder line on the Kuril Islands territorial dispute and that they might distance Japan from agreements Russian President Vladimir Putin and Koizumi’s predecessor, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, reached at a Russian-Japan summit in Irkutsk this past March (see the Monitor, May 1).

The latest diplomatic clash between Moscow and Tokyo–and between Koizumi and his political opponents–began on May 13 when Mori claimed that Russia and Japan had agreed during talks in early April to set up what Japanese reports called two “frameworks” for discussion of the islands dispute. According to the Japan Times, one of these is to deal with conditions for the possible return by Russia to Japan of Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets. Another one is to deal with the fate of the other two islands Kunashir and Iturup. Mori said that the frameworks agreement had been reached during talks in early April between a head of the Japanese Foreign Ministry’s European Affairs Bureau, Kazuhiko Togo, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov. The talks followed shortly after the Putin-Mori meeting in Irkutsk, where Mori had reportedly proposed to Putin that the two countries conduct discussions on the return of Shikotan and the Habomai, as well as Kunashir and Iturup, on a parallel basis.

As the Japan Times suggested, the framework deal (if true) is important because it suggests a significant concession on Moscow’s part. During the summit the Russian side had agreed to respect a 1956 agreement under which the Soviet Union offered to return Shikotan and the Habomai following the signing of a Russian-Japanese peace treaty. But the Kremlin had reportedly been adamant in denying that including the 1956 agreement in current Russian-Japanese peace treaty and territorial negotiations obligated Moscow in any way to discuss the fate of the two remaining (and larger) islands, Kunashir and Iturup. Indeed, the unspoken rationale behind Moscow’s most recent bargaining appeared to involve dangling the possibility of returning two of the islands to Japan in exchange for finalization of the peace treaty deal and what Moscow hopes would be a follow-up surge of Japanese economic aid to–and investment in–Russia. Mori’s government, on the other hand, appeared to see the 1956 agreement as a way to guarantee the return of two of the islands to Japan, and as an opening to then proceed on to discussions over the other two islands. There was no indication that the Mori government was prepared to sign a peace treaty without winning a Russian commitment to return all four of the disputed islands, which are called the “Northern Territories” in Japan. The treaty negotiations appeared to be deadlocked on precisely that point.

That the Koizumi government is preparing to distance itself from the Mori-Putin agreement and to take a harder line on the islands issue was reaffirmed yesterday when the Japanese leader told a parliamentary panel that Japan “will not negotiate a peace treaty even if Russia returns two islands first but the sovereignty of the other two remains ambiguous.” Koizumi’s harder-line position on this issue is strongly backed by Foreign Minister Tanaka, who has publicly criticized Mori for his “two-island” approach. Koizumi’s was reportedly conveyed in a letter to Russia’s president that was to be handed over to Putin yesterday. In the letter Koizumi is also said to have proposed a fresh exchange of opinions “over a basic policy for the conclusion of a peace treaty through the settlement of the issue of the reversion of the four northern islands.” Japan’s conservative Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper interpreted that statement as a policy shift and a confirmation of the Koizumi government’s intention to disavow Mori’s approach to the territorial question.

In Moscow, meanwhile, the official reaction of Russian diplomats to Mori’s statements regarding his talks with Putin and the alleged “frameworks” agreement was one of irritation. The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the Japanese side for breaking what it said was the confidentiality of Russian-Japanese negotiations, and denied that any such framework agreement had been reached. “There was no agreement on conducting separate consultations on the conditions for transferring” the two islands or “on the fate of Kunashir and Iturup,” the ministry said in a terse statement. Unnamed Russian diplomats appeared to contradict the Foreign Ministry statement, however, telling Russian news agencies that Putin and Mori had reached an agreement regarding parallel discussions over the two pairs of islands. But the sources suggested that the agreement had in fact been a very general one.

Any new complications in Russian-Japanese relations that might arise as a result of this verbal clash over the disputed Kuril Islands are likely to be exacerbated by political developments in Japan. There, opposition parties appear to be targeting Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka as part of a broader assault on the reformist Koizumi government. Tanaka has already been raked over the coals for her cancellation of a meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, who was in Japan last week to explain U.S. missile defense plans, and for her recent decision to cancel planned phone conversations with the foreign ministers of Russia and Britain. But the criticism of Tanaka appears also to be the product of her intention to make major personnel changes within the Foreign Ministry itself. One of those changes involved a decision by which Tanaka ordered Jiro Kodera, a former chief of the ministry’s Russia Division, back to Tokyo only a day after he had arrived in London to take up new duties as minister at the Japanese embassy there. Japanese sources suggest that Kodera had been originally transferred to London by the ministry bureaucracy precisely because of his opposition to the “two-island” solution to the territorial dispute that Mori had pushed. Tanaka reportedly wants him back as chief of the Russian Division, presumably because he could be, in her words, a “key person” in the formulation of Japanese policy toward Russia (Reuters, Yomiuri Shimbun, Japan Times, AFP, Russian agencies, May 14; Mainichi Shimbun, May 13-14; Asahi Shimbun, May 10, 14).