Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 210

The Kuril Islands territorial dispute–the primary obstacle to improved Russian-Japanese relations since World War II–remained at the center of press speculations yesterday over today’s summit meeting in Moscow between Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The two men met for nearly two hours this morning and afterwards issued a much-anticipated joint statement–to be called the Moscow Declaration. According to an account by Japan’s Kyodo news agency, the Moscow Declaration will call for the full normalization of relations between Russia and Japan, and for the establishment of a “creative partnership” which will benefit the two countries strategically and geopolitically. The Moscow Declaration is to be based on the 1993 Tokyo Declaration. If all goes according to plan, this will be the first official document signed by the two countries since that 1993 statement (Kyodo, November 11).

In the Tokyo Declaration, Russia and Japan agreed to continue negotiations toward an early conclusion of a peace treaty, with the solution of their territorial dispute to be made “on the basis of historical and legal facts…as well as on the principles of law and justice.” Those twin and interrelated goals–the conclusion of a peace treaty and the resolution of the Kuril Islands territorial dispute–were restated anew in the course of two informal Russian-Japanese summit meetings held last fall (1997) and this past spring (1998) between Yeltsin and then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. More specifically, the two men pledged to do their utmost to conclude a peace treaty by the year 2000. They also agreed on a “Hashimoto-Yeltsin Plan,” in which the two countries resolved to boost bilateral economic cooperation by implementing of a series of joint projects.

The territorial dispute has, however, remained the fly in the ointment. Moscow has shown no inclination to give up the four islands in question–called the Kurils by the Russians and the Northern Territories by the Japanese–and has tried to sweep the issue under the table. That underlying goal has been reflected in Moscow’s attempt, in effect, to decouple the territorial issue from efforts to both draft the peace treaty and launch joint economic projects. Russian leaders, for whom economic interests are currently of primary importance, have also labored, not surprisingly, to eliminate any linkage between the islands issue and Japanese pledges of financial assistance.

Japan, for its part, has insisted with the same steadfastness that a peace treaty is impossible without resolution of the islands issue. It has looked with disfavor on Russian suggestions that it may be necessary to prolong the treaty negotiations beyond the year 2000. The Japanese government appears also to have dragged its feet on economic cooperation, pending–some in Russia charge–a resolution of the territorial issue which is satisfactory to Tokyo.

These enduring differences over the territorial issue will reportedly be manifested in today’s Moscow Declaration. According to the Kyodo agency report, Yeltsin’s and Obuchi’s statement will sidestep the crucial issue of the islands’ status (Kyodo, November 11). That is the same solution apparently adopted by the Russian and Japanese negotiators who have been tasked with drafting the bilateral treaty. According to Russian sources, work on the draft treaty is largely completed. The one exception, they say, is the section dealing with the four disputed islands (see the Monitor, October 27).