Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 187

Sputtering relations between Russia and Japan got a small boost this week when diplomats from the two countries reached a tentative agreement on a major fishing dispute and began firming up plans for a pair of summit meetings between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. This week’s talks, which took place in Tokyo and were headed by Japanese and Russian deputy foreign ministers, also put the two countries back on track to resume discussions on the issue that underlies the fishing dispute and that remains the major obstacle to fully normalized relations between Japan and Russia–the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. Negotiations between Tokyo and Moscow on that tendentious issue have been at a virtual standstill since Koizumi’s surprise election this past spring and the initial signals his government gave indicating that it wanted to rethink Japanese policy in this area.

The four islands in question, which together are called the Northern Territories in Japan and lie just to the north of Hokkaido, were seized by Soviet troops from Tokyo at the very close of World War II. Sought with varying degrees of intensity by Japan since that time, the islands remain both a major bone of contention between Moscow and Tokyo and the primary obstacle to the signing of a peace treaty that would bring a formal end to World War II. Then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto launched a major diplomatic initiative in 1997 that was aimed at both resolving the territorial dispute and opening the way to the signing of a peace treaty. The year 2000 deadline set by Hashimoto and then Russian President Boris Yeltsin passed without either goal having been reached, however, and negotiations conducted since Vladimir Putin’s accession to power in Russia have yielded little in the way of results.

One potentially promising innovation that Putin did introduce, however, involved the recognition of a 1956 Soviet-Japanese joint declaration that called for Moscow to return two of the four disputed islands after the conclusion of a peace treaty. During a summit meeting between Putin and then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in Irkutsk this past March the two sides appeared to advance a little further toward making this statement the basis of peace treaty negotiations. But Koizumi and his foreign minister, Makiko Tanaka, evinced little enthusiasm earlier this year for negotiations based on the 1956 declaration, and appeared instead to move backward toward a more hardline position that eschewed dividing the islands in favor of a demand for the return of all four of them to Japan.

Tensions over the disputed islands sharpened this past summer when Russia reached an agreement with South Korea–and then later with North Korea and Ukraine–allowing boats from these countries to fish the waters off the disputed islands from July 15 through November 15. Tokyo protested the Russian decision on the grounds that it was a challenge to Japanese claims of sovereignty over the islands, but the protest was bluntly rebuffed by the Russian government. Despite the seeming insignificance of what appeared to be nothing more than a fishing dispute, it in fact bore serious consequences not only for relations between Russia and Japan, but also for bilateral ties between Japan and South Korea as well (which were already suffering the ill-effects of a sharp disagreement over new Japanese history textbooks. See the Monitor, July 9, August 9).

It was against this background that yesterday’s talks in Tokyo took place. Headed by Deputy Foreign Ministers Toshiyuki Takano and Aleksandr Losyukov, the negotiations concluded with what Japanese sources described as a basic agreement under which Moscow agreed not to grant fishing rights to third countries in the waters off the disputed islands. That a final agreement may be imminent was suggested by these same Japanese sources, which quoted a Russian diplomat as saying that “There will be no such thing [as the fishing row] next year. The dispute has nearly been settled.”

Other comments by the principals involved suggested that the fishing agreement may not yet be a done deal, however. Earlier negotiations on the same pact had apparently stumbled over a Russian demand that Japan pay compensation for the revenues that Russia was giving up by prohibiting boats from third countries from fishing in the disputed waters. After some initial resistance Tokyo gave in on that point, but the two sides must apparently still negotiate both the exact amount of that compensation and another Russian demand–this one that Japan do more to stop Japanese fishing boats from poaching in the waters off the Kuril Islands. Confrontations between Russian patrol boats and Japanese boats fishing in (or near) the disputed waters have also been a frequent cause of tensions between the two countries. There appeared, moreover, to be conflicting views this week over whether the new fishing agreement would be finalized–or even discussed–during a planned summit meeting between Koizumi and Putin on the margins of the October 20-21 ASEAN forum in Shanghai. One Japanese official was quoted as saying that the fishing agreement should be finalized during the Putin-Koizumi talks. Losyukov, however, said that the issue “does not need to be discussed at the summit as it is being taken up at working levels.”

The agenda for the Putin-Koizumi talks at the ASEAN forum was apparently one of the topics on the agenda in this week’s Russian-Japanese talks, as was the scheduling of a trip to Russia by Koizumi next year for what would be the next full-fledged Russian-Japanese summit meeting. That no specific time frame was made public for that summit meeting suggested, however, that the two sides may still face considerable differences over the territorial dispute issue and the related peace treaty talks. Indeed, Japanese reports this week differed even on the stance that the Koizumi government is now taking toward the territorial issue. The Japanese Times, for example, reported that the two sides had agreed to continue negotiations based on past agreements, including the one reached during Mori’s visit to Irkutsk last year. That suggested Koizumi was prepared to deal more flexibly with Moscow. But Kyodo quoted a Japanese official as reconfirming instead that Tokyo preferred negotiating on the fate of all four disputed islands together, and that Takano had not even brought up Mori’s Irkutsk proposal. That suggested Koizumi was sticking to the more hardline stance that his government had outlined this past spring.

On a positive note, the two sides did reportedly agree that Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko would soon visit Japan, and that Japanese Foreign Minister Tanaka might make a return to Russia–possibly all by the end of this year. That suggested the two sides may at least be trying to reinvigorate a negotiation process that seems clearly to have lost momentum. Whether the events of September 11 and the burgeoning war against international terrorism will have a positive or adverse effect on those negotiations remains to be seen, as does the impact that the antiterror campaign will have on Russian-Japanese relations more generally (Kyodo, October 9-10; Yomiuri Shimbun, October 7, 10; Japan Times, October 11; AFP, October 8).

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