Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 61

Russian President Vladimir Putin, only two days removed from high-profile summit talks with European Union leaders in Stockholm, jetted across Russia this past weekend to take part in a second summit meeting–this one with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori in Irkutsk on March 25. The Irkutsk talks marked the third summit meeting for the Japanese and Russian leaders and the sixth time overall that the two had met. And, like many of those previous meetings, the March 25 talks focused especially on efforts by the two countries to sign a peace treaty formally ending World War II, and on a territorial dispute–over the four South Kuril Islands–which has remained the primary obstacle to an agreement on the peace treaty document.

There was little to suggest that this weekend’s talks did much to break that deadlock, though it would probably be an exaggeration to say that nothing significant occurred. That is despite the fact that expectations had been low going into the summit meeting, both because Mori arrived in large part as a lame-duck leader (his remaining days as prime minister are widely assumed to be numbered) and because there had been little to suggest in the days leading up the summit that either country was prepared to make any substantive concessions on the territorial dispute. The atmosphere in Irkutsk appeared nevertheless to have been convivial enough, with the two leaders heaping praise upon each other and Mori claiming that the talks had generated “mutual understanding never before seen at this level.”

In substantive terms, the most important development at the Irkutsk meeting was an agreement by the two men to continue Russian-Japanese peace treaty negotiations. That was significant because an earlier initiative aimed at reaching this same goal–one launched with much fanfare in Krasnoyarsk in 1997 by then Russian and Japanese leaders Boris Yeltsin and Ryutaro Hashimoto–had expired without a result at the end of last year. The new commitment to seek a peace treaty, and a related resolution of the Kuril Islands territorial dispute, was contained in a joint statement Putin and Mori issued at the close of their talks.

For the Japanese, the joint statement marked a small victory simply insofar as it committed the two countries to resume the peace treaty and territorial dispute negotiations–a process which Japan in more recent years has approached with a greater sense of urgency than Russia. In addition, Tokyo won formal acceptance from Moscow of a 1956 joint Soviet-Japanese declaration under which Moscow had offered to return two of the four disputed islands–Shikotan and the Habomai–following the conclusion of a bilateral peace treaty. Putin had unexpectedly raised the prospect of reactivating the 1956 declaration during a meeting with Mori last year, and the Japanese had hoped in the run up to these latest talks to formalize that Russian offer. This past weekend’s joint statement did just that, declaring the 1956 accord to be the “basic legal foundation” for future peace treaty talks.

The Irkutsk declaration was, at the same time, a disappointment for Tokyo insofar as it contained no reference to a deadline for completion of the new round of peace treaty talks. Reports had suggested prior to the Irkutsk summit that the Japanese had lobbied hard in hopes of gaining Russian acceptance of a new peace treaty deadline. Tokyo apparently believed that a deadline would tend to keep the negotiations active and help push Moscow to meet an agreed-upon timetable. The Russian side, by contrast, has long downplayed the importance of moving speedily toward conclusion of a peace treaty and, particularly with the territorial row in mind, has chosen instead to emphasize the long-term nature of the problem and the need for Moscow and Tokyo to seek interim accords on the road to a final agreement. That the Irkutsk statement contained no framework for future peace treaty talks suggested that Moscow had refused to budge on this issue.

Indeed, though the atmospherics which prevailed during the Putin-Mori meeting were unexpectedly pleasant (Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono’s visit to Moscow this past January ended in acrimony; see the Monitor, January 22), there is little to suggest that the Irkutsk joint statement provides any guarantee that the peace treaty and related talks will move forward any more successfully than they have in the recent past. That is because the 1956 joint Soviet-Japanese declaration, the inclusion of which was central to the Irkutsk statement, is interpreted differently by Moscow and Tokyo. As Putin appeared to suggest following his talks with Mori, the Russians continue to see in the 1956 accord a potential deal by which Moscow would return two of the four disputed islands to Japan in exchange for the signing of a peace treaty and an end to the territorial dispute. That is, the Russians would see themselves as being under no obligation to engage in further negotiations over the two other disputed islands–Etorofu and Kunashir. The Japanese, by contrast, continue to seek the return of all four islands. They would like to interpret the 1956 joint declaration as a commitment by Moscow to return two of the islands, and to then continue negotiations on the other two. The Japanese, moreover, would apparently still make the finalization of a peace treaty document dependent on the return to Japan of all four of the disputed islands, called the “Northern Territories” in Japan.

Aside from the peace treaty and territorial negotiations, Putin and Mori also discussed other areas of Russian-Japanese cooperation. In an apparent effort to show good faith, Tokyo moved quickly to act on a pledge to boost involvement in Russia’s economy. Japanese officials announced on March 25 that a group of high-powered businessmen would visit Russia in June. The mission, said to be the first of its kind in some twenty-five years, is to be backed by the Japanese government. To date, Japanese authorities have held back economic cooperation with Moscow because of both the failure to achieve a breakthrough in the peace treaty and territorial dispute negotiations, and because of the continuing reluctance of Japanese businesses to invest in Russia’s uncertain market. In addition, Mori and Putin agreed in Irkutsk to boost exchanges of defense officials and to intensify bilateral discussions on international security issues (Mainichi Shimbun, Reuters, AP,, March 25; Japan Times, March 24-27; Yomiuri Shimbun, Segodnya, Russian agencies, March 26).

Putin and Mori appeared to spend little time on some key and potentially divisive security issues, however, including U.S. missile defense plans, the possible deployment of a Japanese-U.S. theater missile defense system in Asia and broader Japanese-U.S. military cooperation. Russia has strongly condemned the Bush administration’s missile defense plans, and has tried to rally international opposition against them. Moscow has also joined with Beijing in denouncing the still preliminary Asian theater missile defense scheme. Whether relations between Russia and Japan will suffer additional pressures as a result of the Bush administration’s plans to tighten ties with Tokyo remains to be seen. At least one Japanese newspaper has suggested that the Japanese government–which will presumably soon be headed by someone other than Mori–may have to make some hard choices in this context. The Mainichi Shimbun offered no direct criticism of the Bush administration’s harder line toward Russia, but it did intimate that on this and other issues the Japanese government should not be afraid to make its voice heard within what is expected to be a revitalized Japanese-U.S. alliance. Given Japan’s hopes–however forlorn they may be–of normalizing relations with Russia and moving forward on the territorial dispute, Tokyo may ultimately prove to be less enthusiastic than Washington about adopting a confrontational posture toward Moscow (Mainichi Shimbun, March 25).