Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 162

President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to arrive in Tokyo on Sunday where, for the next two days, he will hold summit talks with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori. Putin had appeared in no hurry earlier this year to schedule the Tokyo summit meeting, but, after facing a difficult month in Moscow, he is now probably glad for the opportunity to escape the Russian capital for a while. Due to recent developments in Russia–the deadly bombing in Moscow, the loss of the nuclear submarine Kursk and the fire which disabled the Ostankino television tower–the buildup to this Russian-Japanese summit meeting has been more muted than usual. Putin’s trip is nevertheless very important for bilateral relations between the two countries. Putin has met with Mori twice already this year–in St. Petersburg in April and at the G-7 summit in Okinawa in July–but this will be the first formal summit meeting between the two countries since then President Boris Yeltsin met with then Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in November of 1998. Given the disastrous month Putin has had, his arrival in Tokyo on this occasion seems likely to be considerably less triumphant than his arrival in Okinawa in July. At that time Putin was at the height of his popularity and had completed a groundbreaking visit to North Korea for talks with Kim Jong-il.

The long gap between summit meetings for Moscow and Tokyo, which has resulted in a loss of diplomatic momentum, was the result in part of the illnesses which afflicted Boris Yeltsin in the last years of his presidency. But the gap was also a reflection of the Kremlin’s wariness about assenting to a summit meeting at a time when Russian and Japanese leaders were at an impasse over the issue which since the close of World War II has been the main stumbling block to a full normalization of bilateral relations: the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. Putin’s own reluctance earlier this year to schedule a trip to Japan was undoubtedly the result of similar calculations. And, while he did finally bend to Tokyo’s urging, there is little reason to believe that Putin and Mori will have any more luck resolving the issue this time around than did their predecessors at previous summits.

At present, the impasse is this. Tokyo wants to make the signing of a Russian-Japanese peace treaty, one which would bring a formal end World War II, dependent upon a resolution of the territorial dispute. That resolution would redraw the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion designed to ultimately return to Japan the four south Kuril islands, which were seized by Soviet troops at the close of the war. Moscow, in turn, has proposed decoupling the territorial issue from peace treaty negotiations and postponing consideration of the former while continuing negotiations on the latter. In November of 1997 the two countries agreed to seek finalization of the peace treaty by the year 2000. Tokyo continues to hope that that goal might be accomplished by the end of this year. Moscow has urged that the deadline be relaxed.

On the eve of this latest summit meeting, there appears to be some wavering in the Japanese position. That was signaled first in late July, when a top official of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party said that Tokyo should not necessarily make resolution of the territorial a precondition for the signing of a peace treaty (see the Monitor, August 8). Then, just yesterday, Japanese newspapers appeared to disagree over whether Tokyo was now also prepared to extend the peace treaty negotiations deadline. The Yomiuri Shimbun quoted Japanese government officials as saying that Mori intended to make precisely that proposal to Putin during their September 4-5 talks. They suggested that the Japanese side is likely to push for an extension to the year 2002, but that it might even consent to pushing the date back to 2004 (Yomiuri Shimbun, September 1). The Japan Times and other news agencies, meanwhile, quoted Mori as denying to reporters yesterday that Tokyo had given up on the idea of signing the treaty by the end of this year. He also denied the possibility that the two governments might move to review the contents of the peace treaty that has already been drafted (Japan Times, September 1; Reuters, August 31).

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported on August 31, however, that what Japan may actually be intending is to insist officially that it wants to maintain the original treaty deadline, while simultaneously being prepared to take the more pragmatic option of permitting a deadline extension. But Tokyo’s willingness to agree to the extension will apparently be based on getting a commitment from Moscow for future meetings on the peace treaty and, presumably, territorial issues. What the Japanese side will reportedly remain firm on, if reports of recent days are to be believed, is their rejection of the Russian proposal to sign a peace and friendship treaty now while postponing the territorial (or border) issue until later (Yomiuri Shimbun, August 31). And that suggests the two sides are unlikely to break the impasse in negotiations when they meet on Monday.

That does not necessarily mean that the summit will be an unsuccessful one, however. Japanese officials have suggested that they may be willing to deemphasize the importance of the treaty and territorial issue and instead to focus on two issue areas that will be more to the liking of the Russian delegation: the deepening of Russian-Japanese dialogue and cooperation on a host of key international issues, and a similar intensification of efforts to improve bilateral economic cooperation. The first of these issue areas appears to be something of a new wrinkle for Tokyo. A Japanese diplomat in Moscow appeared to go out of his way on August 30 to underscore what he said has been Tokyo’s support for the Russian position on two of the key issues that have brought Moscow into conflict with the United States and Europe–Russia’s war in Chechnya and NATO’s air war against Yugoslavia. He also said that Moscow and Tokyo share common positions on a number of international issues (Russian agencies, August 31).

It remains to be seen whether Putin and Mori will be able to restore momentum in Russian-Japanese relations by focusing on geopolitics and economic cooperation. On the first score, Japan’s close defense relationship with the United States and its consideration with Washington of a joint theater missile defense in Asia remain major points of friction with Moscow. With regard to economic cooperation, Japan has until now limited its investment and business dealings with Russia both because of the impasse over the Kuril Islands territorial issue and because of Moscow’s enduring failure to regularize legal and business practices in Russia. Thus, while some ten documents will reportedly be inked during Putin’s visit to Tokyo, there seems to be little evidence that conditions have been created which might permit the two countries to move forward significantly in either the geopolitical or economic realm, let alone with regard to the territorial issue.