Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 37

Differences between Moscow and Tokyo over their long-standing territorial dispute were laid bare once again this past weekend as Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov completed three days of high-level talks in the Japanese capital. Both sides were careful to emphasize both the warming in bilateral relations which has occurred over the last year or so, and their joint intention to continue negotiations toward signing a peace treaty to formally end World War II. But coverage of the talks was dominated by reports which Ivanov gave his Japanese hosts on February 21 that resolution of the territorial issue is nowhere in sight. Although the Russian foreign minister tried to deny that he had spoken so pessimistically about negotiations on the Kuril Islands territorial issue, the apparent differences between the two sides were underscored again yesterday when Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said that he hoped the two countries could settle their border issues in the near future (Russian and Japanese agencies, February 20-22).

The dissonance on the territorial issue was no surprise. The Soviet Union’s seizure of the four south Kuril Islands from Japan at the close of World War II, and Tokyo’s subsequent efforts to reclaim the islands, has precluded both a peace treaty and fully normalized relations. Tokyo attempted to break the impasse in mid-1997, however, when then Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto chose to de-emphasize the territorial issue and to pursue better relations with Russia by improving cooperation in other areas. That initiative was effective, and led to a pair of successful summit meetings between Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. A third summit meeting–between an ailing Yeltsin and Hashimoto’s successor as prime minister, Keizo Obuchi–took place last fall. The key agreement to come out of the earlier summit meetings was a commitment by both sides to work toward signing a peace treaty by the year 2000.

While the two sides were, in a sense, able to finesse the territorial issue by focusing instead on the peace treaty, they were not able to make it go away. Increasingly, the Russian side tried to decouple peace treaty talks from the territorial issue altogether, while Japanese leaders emphasized repeatedly that a peace treaty could come only after resolution of the islands dispute. Those contradictory approaches were manifested in a pair of unpublished proposals now on the table for discussion. The Japanese side proposed early last year that Russia retain administrative control over the islands for an undetermined period, but that the Russian-Japanese border be withdrawn so as to ultimately give the islands back to Japan. A Russian “counterproposal,” offered during last fall’s summit, suggested instead that the two sides devote themselves first to negotiations on a political treaty, while committing themselves to conduct more negotiations on the territorial issue further down the road.

It is probably irrelevant whether Ivanov did or did not say directly this past weekend that Moscow now considers a quick resolution of the territorial dispute impossible. That point has been made publicly–and with some bluntness–by Russian diplomats on several occasions recently (see the Monitor, December 3, January 7). Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov, moreover, told reporters yesterday that Japan and Russia are indeed far apart on the territorial issue. And any resolution of the problem, he suggested, must include continued Russian sovereignty over the islands (Russian agencies, February 22).