Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 196

Talks between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Russian President Vladimir Putin, conducted on October 21 on the margins of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Shanghai, appear to have done little to clarify or further bilateral talks on the issue that has been the main obstacle to a full normalization of relations between Tokyo and Moscow: the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. Japanese reports suggested that Koizumi, in an effort to jumpstart negotiations on the islands, had used the meeting with Putin to propose a new negotiations format, one in which two sets of negotiations will be conducted simultaneously and in parallel. That the proposal is unlikely to yield the sort of breakthrough which the Japanese side is seeking was suggested, however, by the twin facts that the Japanese government appeared to begin backing away from it almost as soon as the APEC summit concluded and that the new proposal drew only scant attention in Russian reporting of the Shanghai meeting. Agreement on the territorial dispute is crucial, however, because without it the two countries will be unable to move on to the signing of a peace treaty that, by formally ending World War II, would also normalize relations between Russia and Japan. At the heart of the dispute are the four South Kuril Islands seized by Soviet troops at the close of World War II, which Japan–referring to them as the “Northern Territories”–continues to try to regain.

Negotiations on the Kuril Islands territorial dispute–and, by extension, on the peace treaty–have for the most part been deadlocked since Vladimir Putin’s accession to the Russian presidency. Difficulties in this area, moreover, have been exacerbated by political instability in Japan, and by current Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s adoption of an apparently more hardline position on the issue (see the Monitor, October 11). Indeed, the proposal the Japanese made during this past weekend’s Putin-Koizumi meeting appeared to reflect an effort by Koizumi to reintroduce more flexibility into the Japanese negotiating position. The essence of the new proposal is a plan by which separate and parallel talks are to be conducted on the return to Japan of two of the four disputed islands–Habomai and Shikotan–and on the sovereignty of the remaining two islands–Kunashir and Iturup. In addition, the two sets of talks are to take place “without preconditions.”

Koizumi’s proposal appears to represent in part a return to the negotiation position adopted by his predecessor, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, during a summit meeting with Putin in Irkutsk this past spring. Mori was building on an earlier Putin initiative when he made a 1956 Soviet-Japanese joint declaration–one calling for the return of Shikotan and Habomai to Japan following the signing of a peace treaty–the basis of current Russian-Japanese negotiations. Koizumi rejected that approach upon his accession to the prime minister post earlier this year, however, insisting instead that talks had to proceed on the basis of a Russian recognition that all four islands should be returned. Koizumi’s proposal this past weekend for separate and parallel talks, therefore, appeared to be something of a retreat, as was his call for the parallel talks to proceed “without preconditions.” That apparently represented an at least temporary abandonment of an earlier Japanese policy aimed at securing, as the basis for talks, a Russian acknowledgement of Japanese sovereignty over all four islands.

In an apparent effort to placate nationalist sentiment at home, however, Koizumi and his foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, began almost immediately after the Putin-Koizumi talks to insist that the Shanghai proposal did not in fact represent any weakening in Tokyo’s insistence that all four islands be returned to Japan. Some Japanese newspapers, meanwhile, warned in this same vein that Moscow was likely to use the parallel talks format to seek an agreement on the return of Shikotan and the Habomai islands, while simultaneously stonewalling the talks on the larger islands of Kunashir and Iturup. As the Yomiuri Shimbun wrote, Moscow might also “demand the peace treaty be signed, even without progress in settling the territorial status of Kunashiri and Etorofu (Iturup).” And that scenario, the newspaper added, “is wholly unacceptable.”

On a more positive note, the Putin-Koizumi talks in Shanghai did produce an agreement that a Russian-Japanese intergovernmental trade and economic cooperation committee would meet in Japan on December 1. There was also mention of a meeting between Foreign Ministers Tanaka and Igor Ivanov in Japan, possibly in January. But that scheduling comes somewhat later than some reports earlier this year had indicated. The added fact that there was no probable date given for the next Putin-Koizumi summit–its scheduling will apparently depend upon the progress made in negotiations that take place before the Tanaka-Ivanov meeting–suggested that differences on the territorial issue remain wide and that the talks between Putin and Koizumi in Shanghai did little to narrow them (Kyodo, October 21-23; Yomiuri Shimbun, October 22-24; Interfax, October 22-23; Japan Times, October 23).