Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 30

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov launched an official tour of Asia this week which began in North Korea on Wednesday and that brought him to Japan yesterday. He is scheduled to remain in Tokyo until Sunday (February 13), and then will continue on for two days of talks in Vietnam. Although the Japanese portion of the trip has drawn considerable attention from the Russian media, the Asian tour overall is not being treated as highly significant. One Russian news source did suggest, however, that Moscow is hoping Ivanov’s trip will help raise Russia’s profile in the East at a time when its relations with the West have grown more problematic (Izvestia, February 10).

Following a thirty-minute meeting in Tokyo yesterday between Ivanov and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, both sides resolved anew to try to resolve both their long-standing Kuril Islands territorial dispute and to work toward the signing of a peace treaty by the end of this year. That, at least, appeared to be the reading of the meeting given by Japanese officials (AP, Yomiuri Shimbun, February 10).

In fact, however, the days in the Japanese capital immediately prior to Ivanov’s arrival had been filled with the type of diplomatic jousting which has become the norm before high-level Russian-Japanese consultations and which, in this case, seemed to auger poorly for the success of Ivanov’s talks in Tokyo. On Monday (February 7), Obuchi probably stepped on Russian sensibilities when he addressed an annual rally of Japanese politicians and citizens devoted to returning to Japan the “northern territories,” as the four disputed islands are called by the Japanese. In what was undoubtedly interpreted by many of the participants as a pledge to get the islands back, Obuchi told the rally that he would do his “utmost to resolve the northern territories problem and ensure [that Japan achieves its] target of signing a peace treaty with Russia” (AP, February 7).

Those remarks were probably at least in part the reason for comments Ivanov made the following day which themselves ruffled more than a few feathers in Tokyo. In an interview with Japan’s Kyodo news agency, Ivanov said that Russia and Japan were in fact highly unlikely to finalize work on a peace treaty by the end of this year. In what appeared to be an indirect reference to the territorial dispute, Ivanov warned Tokyo against creating “illusions” that the two sides would be able to resolve their differences so quickly. He also repeated what has become Moscow’s standard reaction to Japanese pressure for a return of the islands: that in conducting peace treaty negotiations with Japan Moscow has no intention of “doing damage to the sovereignty or territorial integrity of Russia” (Reuters, Kyodo, Russian agencies, February 9).

Ivanov’s blunt remarks provoked a quick response from Tokyo. Foreign Minister Yohei Kono told reporters yesterday that he still hoped Russia would honor the 1997 agreement under which the two countries pledged to try to conclude a peace treaty in 2000, and that he would ask Ivanov to endorse anew all the accords reached by Russia and Japan during past summit meetings (Agence France Presse, February 10).

That is apparently what Ivanov did during his meeting yesterday with Obuchi. Yet the Japanese insistence on this deadline is unlikely to get Russia and Japan closer to a settlement. The peace treaty negotiations–which bring World War II to a formal close for the two countries–have thus far stumbled over irreconcilable differences relating to the territorial dispute. Japan wants the islands back and is insisting that a satisfactory resolution of the dispute be a part of the final peace treaty agreement. Moscow has been just as resolute in refusing to make any territorial concessions, and has tried at various times to decouple the territorial issue from the broader peace treaty negotiations. Ivanov is scheduled to have extensive negotiations with Kono today, and that impasse will undoubtedly top their discussion agenda.

The two sides will apparently also discuss a possible visit by acting Russian President Vladimir Putin to Japan sometime after his presumed election victory on March 26. Earlier reports, confirmed anew on the eve of Ivanov’s arrival in Tokyo, suggested that the two sides are considering the holding of a Japanese-Russian summit in July, just before the convening of the annual Group of Seven summit in Okinawa on July 21-23. If that occurs, it could conceivably give a boost to relations which have languished over the past year as a result both of the impasse over the territorial issue and of diplomatic complications caused by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s many health problems.

Yet even in discussions about a possible July summit the differences between the two sides on the territorial issue are evident. According to one report, the Russians would like to make the meeting a “no necktie” affair–that is, an informal summit meeting. But the Japanese want the meeting to be an official one (Itar-Tass, February 7). The reasons are simple. Formal agreements are typically not made at informal meetings, and Moscow wants to avoid being pinned down officially on the territorial issue–preferring instead to string Tokyo along while at the same time seeking to extract economic favors. Japan, in contrast, appears to be growing increasingly anxious about the course of events both in Russia and in the negotiations over the Kuril Islands. It would prefer a formal summit meeting in July, one that would finalize the peace treaty and related agreements that have now been under negotiation for several years.