Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 80

Just a week before a scheduled meeting between Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, a Russian patrol boat this weekend fired upon and then seized a Japanese fishing vessel. The April 21 incident also came just twenty-four hours before an informal meeting in Moscow between former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. These two were responsible for a major diplomatic initiative–launched in 1997–to normalize relations between the two countries through the signing of a peace treaty and the resolution of the decades-long Kuril Islands territorial dispute. The seizure of the Japanese fishing vessel demonstrated yet again the extent to which the territorial row complicates Tokyo-Moscow relations.

Details of the April 21 incident remain in dispute. According to Russian authorities, the Japanese boat–the Daikotu Maru–was discovered by a Russian border patrol vessel while fishing in Russian waters off the Kurils. The Maru was reportedly operating with its name and identification concealed and is said to have tried to escape despite orders to stop and the firing of a warning shot by the Russian boat. But reports quoting Japanese officials told another story. They suggested that the Japanese vessel was never in Russian waters, that instead the confrontation had occurred either in Japanese or international waters. A Russian source appeared to agree that the border guard forces had, at the least, pursued the Daikotu Maru into Japan’s economic zone. Whatever the case, the Maru was seized and escorted to the Russian port of Malokurilskoe, to be held pending an investigation. There were apparently no injuries among the twenty-member Japanese crew. Tokyo has nevertheless protested the seizure (BBC, AP, Reuters, April 21; New York Times, April 22).

Confrontations between Russian border patrol vessels and Japanese fishing boats were common in the early 1990s but have grown infrequent since Tokyo and Moscow signed an agreement in February 1998–one finalized only after a difficult three years of negotiations–which governs fishing rights for Japanese boats in the Kurils waters. The most serious confrontation–in June 1997–left one Japanese fisherman seriously injured and brought an official protest from the Japanese government. In July 1999 three Japanese fishing boats were seized near the disputed islands and their crews held by Russian authorities for several months.

In Moscow Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov called the April 21 incident “regrettable,” but said that it was unlikely to have any broader impact on Tokyo-Moscow relations (Russian agencies, April 21). Losyukov was recently named a cochair of several Russian-Japanese commissions dealing with issues related to the Kuril Island territorial dispute. Those negotiations have been deadlocked by continuing differences between Russia and Japan over the territorial row. That same deadlock, in turn, had itself paralyzed negotiations aimed at finalizing a Russian-Japanese peace treaty to formally end World War II. Tokyo continues to link the peace treaty to an agreement which would return the four disputed islands–called the Northern Territories in Japan–to Japan’s control. Russia, in turn, has sought to decouple the peace treaty from the islands issue and has shown no inclination to make any territorial concessions. Yeltsin and Hashimoto had pledged to sign the peace treaty by the year 2000, but that deadline is now well past and there is still no agreement in sight.

Whether any forward momentum is likely under the new Russian and Japanese governments on the peace treaty and territorial negotiations will likely become at least a bit clearer over the next week. Mori has been pressing hard for a meeting with Putin, and probably hopes to raise the peace treaty and territorial issues during their April 29 meeting in Moscow. Some Russian reports, however, have suggested that the Kremlin would prefer to steer clear of those issues. They suggest that Putin and Mori will concentrate instead on bilateral economic relations and on advancing preparations for this July’s summit of the G-7 countries and Russia on the Japanese island of Okinawa (Reuters, April 22). Tokyo is also hoping for an official, bilateral Russian-Japanese summit sometime later this year, but whether that is scheduled will probably depend on the progress that the two sides make over the next several months in the peace treaty and territorial negotiations. Like his predecessor, Putin is unlikely to want to schedule a full-fledged summit meeting with Mori if, as seems likely, the two countries are unable to bridge their differences on those issues.