Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 32

Talks between Russia and Japan in Tokyo last week appeared to end inconclusively as Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov refused to commit Moscow either to meet an end-of-year deadline for the signing of a bilateral peace treaty, or to agree to a July date for the next Russian-Japanese summit. The continued impasse on those two points suggested that Ivanov’s three-day visit to Japan had done little to narrow differences between the two countries on what is really the key obstacle to improved bilateral ties: the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. Differences on this issue have deadlocked the peace treaty negotiations and underlie Moscow’s unwillingness to set a date for summit talks between Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Keizo Obuchi.

Neither side, of course, described Ivanov’s visit to Tokyo in such bleak terms. Japanese officials and news sources in particular appeared to suggest that Ivanov had been more forthcoming than was really the case. This more positive spin reflects what appears to be a growing urgency within the Japanese government to move the peace treaty negotiations–and thus the resolution of the territorial dispute–forward as quickly as possible. In 1997, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin and then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto had committed themselves to do just this by the year 2000. As that deadline approached late last year, Japanese officials suddenly began to speak instead of a deadline which extended to the end of 2000. That practice continued during Ivanov’s visit. Japanese officials also apparently stepped up their pressure on Moscow to schedule a summit meeting between Putin and Obuchi in July of this year, just prior to the G-7 summit in Okinawa. Ivanov appeared to demur.

Indeed, despite proclamations from both sides that bilateral relations remain on track, a concluding press conference given by Ivanov and Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono underscored Moscow’s continued reticence. Ivanov apparently refused to elaborate on controversial comments he had made just prior to his arrival in Tokyo, when he suggested that Japanese leaders should dispense with the “illusion” that the two sides will be able to sign a peace treaty this year (see the Monitor, February 11). He also spoke in the vaguest terms about the proposed summit meeting, refusing to commit to the July date and saying only that the two sides would return to the issue following Russia’s presidential election in late March.

In a sure sign that Moscow will not agree to the summit meeting if it is to involve little more than a rehashing of Japanese demands for a return of the four disputed islands, Russian sources were quoted on February 13 as suggesting that the Kremlin is most interested in the substance of any future Putin-Obuchi talks, and not simply in meeting for meeting’s sake. It is worth noting that Putin (assuming that he is reelected) will meet with Obuchi on the sidelines of the G-7 summit plus Russia in July, regardless of whether a Russian-Japanese summit is also scheduled beforehand. But Tokyo wants a separate, official summit meeting with Putin in order to push the peace negotiations forward (Reuters, February 11; Kyodo, Russian agencies, February 11-13; Asahi Shimbun, February 12).

Despite these differences, Ivanov nevertheless left Japan with a few goodies in his back pocket. The Russian Foreign Minister told reporters on February 11 that Tokyo had agreed to give Moscow a US$120 million grant to help Russia’s Pacific Fleet scrap some of its aging nuclear submarines. Tokyo apparently also confirmed its intention to continue extending financing to Russia under a US$1.5 billion loan program agreed to in 1998. After an initial disbursement of US$800 million, Tokyo had put that loan on hold following Russia’s financial meltdown in August. Japan resumed the lending with a US$375 million tranche paid out last November, and another tranche of US$100 million paid last month (Bridge News, February 11).

In another sign that Japan may at present be more anxious to boost relations with Moscow than vice versa, Ivanov also suggested that he had won Tokyo’s support for the Russian military campaign in the Caucasus. Indeed, a Russian daily gleefully pointed to what it said was Japan’s unwillingness to follow the lead of those Western countries which have condemned the Russian military action in Chechnya (Itar-Tass, February 11; Nezavisimaya gazeta, February 12). If Ivanov’s statement was not a distortion of the position taken in the latest talks by Japan over Chechnya, then it would appear that Tokyo has reversed itself. The Japanese government had earlier expressed the view that the Chechen conflict was Russia’s internal affair. But during a meeting of foreign ministers from the G-7 countries and Russia in Berlin last December Japan was reported to have changed its stance and joined in condemnation of the Russian military action in the North Caucasus (Kyodo, December 17).