Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 14

As reported last week, the talks in Moscow last week between Japanese Foreign Minister Yohei Kono and his Russian opposite number, Igor Ivanov, produced some friendly rhetoric but appeared to yield little in the way of substantive progress on several of the key issues which divide the two countries (see the Monitor, January 17). Reports published in the wake of Kono’s three-day visit, however, have suggested that the visit may have closed with a good deal more rancor than was initially believed. Indeed, the Russian daily Izvestia claimed that Kono’s visit had resulted in an “unexpected and shocking failure for Tokyo,” and that the talks had, in essence, achieved nothing positive whatsoever. That failure apparently extended to Russian-Japanese negotiations aimed both at setting a date for the next summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, and at narrowing differences between Moscow and Tokyo in delicate talks on a peace treaty which would formally bring an end to World War II for the two countries.

The depth of Russian pique over developments related to these issues was apparently manifested in Putin’s refusal on January 17 to even meet with Kono on what was the final day of the Japanese minister’s stay in Moscow. The rebuke appears to have been significant, given that Japanese foreign ministers holding talks in Moscow have traditionally been invited to pay a courtesy call to the Russian president prior to their departure. And the Japanese side had assumed that Kono would meet in the same way with Putin on this occasion.

Russian displeasure was also manifested in a brusque message it delivered to Kono only after he had left Moscow and was airborne en route to Tokyo. The message reportedly denied that the Russian government had agreed to schedule a Putin-Mori summit for February 25-26, as Mori had announced to reporters following his talks in the Russian capital. The message said instead that Moscow was prepared to schedule the meeting sometime in March of this year. The Russian move, and the manner in which was communicated, led the Japanese Foreign Ministry on January 19 to publicly rebuke Moscow for having failed to meet what the Japanese side said was a commitment for a February summit meeting. In a twenty-minute phone call to Ivanov, Kono was quoted as saying that Moscow’s action was “absolutely incomprehensible because Japan agreed to a schedule which Russia had proposed.”

Moscow’s displeasure appears to have been a product at least in part of announcements which appeared in the Japanese press on the eve of the Mori visit claiming that Mori and Putin would hold a summit meeting in the Siberian city of Irkutsk on February 17-18. Moscow apparently believed, probably not without some justification, that the Japanese government had “leaked” the tentative summit dates to the press in order to increase pressure on Moscow. Since Russia and Japan began negotiating a peace treaty in 1997–negotiations which have foundered over the Kuril Islands territorial dispute–Tokyo had typically pushed Moscow to move at a faster pace than Russian officials have been prepared to accept.

Indeed, the jostling over scheduling the summit is but a reflection of the two countries’ inability to resolve the territorial dispute. And the differences on that issue appear, if anything, to have sharpened during Kono’s visit. That had been suggested in reports during Kono’s visit which quoted a senior Russian diplomat–Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov–as suggesting that Moscow was unprepared to make any concessions on the territorial issue.

Izvestia suggested that Ivanov had been perhaps even blunter during his meeting with Kono. At present the two sides are attempting to break the stalemate over the territorial row by looking anew at a 1956 Soviet-Japanese declaration which called for Moscow to return two of the four disputed islands to Japan after the signing of a peace treaty. Tokyo has apparently adopted that approach, shifting from an earlier position which categorically demanded a return of all four islands. Its new proposals reportedly call for a two-step approach in which Shikotan and the Habomai islets–the smaller and less significant of the four islands in question–would be returned to Japan, while negotiations on the return of the larger islands–Kunashir and Iturup–would continue apace. Ivanov apparently rejected that view outright, however. He told Kono that Moscow sees no connection whatsoever between the 1956 agreement and the two larger islands, and no basis therefore for including that sort of linkage in the current peace treaty negotiations. The disagreement on this issue was reportedly sharp enough that it precluded the two sides from reaching agreement even on the general outlines of a text called the “Irkutsk declaration,” which is the document intended to be the main product of the next Russian-Japanese summit (Izvestia, AFP, January 19; The Japan Times, January 19, 21).

It is difficult to say how significant last week’s clash between Tokyo and Moscow will prove to be. It may, on the one hand, simply have been a bit of posturing by both sides as they approach what could be a critical juncture in their negotiations on a peace treaty and on the Kuril Islands dispute. At the same time, larger factors may be involved. For one, Putin’s Kremlin may not be fully committed to a diplomatic initiative launched by former Russian President Boris Yeltsin which appears to be yielding few concrete results for Moscow.

Equally important, the Kremlin may be reassessing the importance it attaches to relations with Japan. Some recent reports have suggested that China and Russia may be preparing to sign a formal friendship treaty sometime later this year (New York Times, January 14). Concurrently, the newly inaugurated Bush administration has made it clear that it would like to strengthen ties between Japan and the United States, and that it may also adopt a harsher line toward Beijing. In that context, Washington may also push harder for the development with Japan of a theater missile defense system in Asia. That is something that Beijing and Moscow both vehemently oppose. With all of these factors now in play, and with Moscow and Tokyo seemingly at loggerheads in any event over the territorial dispute, the Kremlin may choose to slow the pace of its talks with Japan a bit and to await broader developments in the Asia Pacific region.