Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 5

The dispute between Russia and Japan over control of the south Kuril Islands made headlines for a second day yesterday as Japan’s Kyodo news agency reported that Tokyo intends to reject a recent Russian proposal related to the territorial dispute. Quoting unnamed Japanese government officials, Kyodo said that Tokyo would inform Moscow of its position during diplomatic talks scheduled for January 21, and again during a Russian-Japanese summit slated to take place later this year (Kyodo, Itar-Tass, January 7).

The Japanese sources also said that Tokyo intends to stick with a proposal of its own, made in April of last year, which calls for redrawing the Russian-Japanese border in a fashion which would ultimately return all four of the disputed Kuril Islands–called the “northern territories” in Japan–to Tokyo. Yesterday’s unexpected developments followed by only a day Japanese news reports suggesting that Tokyo intended to make another sort of proposal to Moscow–one involving an interim bilateral peace treaty to be followed by continued negotiations on the territorial issue. Russian government sources denied that any such discussions had taken place between the two countries. Japanese officials offered a more qualified denial of the report (see the Monitor, January 7).

During a summit meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in November, Russian President Boris Yeltsin reportedly proposed that the two countries sign a “peace, friendship and cooperation” treaty by the year 2000, and that they continue negotiations on a separate border demarcation treaty which would, in effect, be aimed at resolving the Kuril Islands territorial dispute. The Japanese sources said yesterday, however, that Tokyo was dissatisfied with that proposal because it seemed likely to defer indefinitely any settlement of the territorial issue. In the same vein, the Japanese government was said to be unhappy with the Russian proposal because it contained no information as to when the border issue might be resolved or where the border would ultimately be drawn.

In November 1997 Russia and Japan pledged to pursue signing a peace treaty by the year 2000. Since that time, however, Moscow has tried to decouple the treaty issue from the territorial dispute, while Tokyo has insisted a territorial settlement must accompany the treaty signing. Both sides have since tried to finesse the territorial issue.

But as the year 2000 approaches, and with looming parliamentary and presidential elections in Russia, both sides are running out of wriggle room. Last month, Russian officials finally began to warn bluntly that the two sides could not possibly resolve the territorial row by the year 2000. They urged the Japanese government to stop raising the expectations of the Japanese people on that score. Tokyo’s reported rejection yesterday of the Russian treaty proposal may be a response in kind. The Japanese government was not expected to respond to the Russian proposal until the next Russian-Japanese summit, tentatively scheduled to take place in spring or summer.

Yesterday’s developments suggest that the two sides may be about to hit a dead-end in their treaty negotiations–a result which could reverse recent positive trends in their bilateral relations. For Russia, this could mean an end to hopes for massive Japanese financial assistance and investment in the Russian Far East. It could also mean a weakening of Japanese support for Russian efforts to win membership in various international financial organizations. For Japan, deadlocked treaty talks would signify another defeat on the highly emotive territorial issue. It might also mean the end to any possible Russian support for Japan’s efforts to gain a permanent UN Security Council seat.