Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visit to Hokkaido last week for a glimpse of the four disputed Russian-held islands may have helped draw public attention to the decades-old territorial row with Moscow.
But despite the government’s rosy view that bilateral talks might make headway after Russian President Vladimir Putin was easily elected to a second term in March, prospects appear bleak that any of the islands will be returned to Japan anytime soon.
Soviet troops seized the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan and the Habomai islets off northeastern Hokkaido in the closing days of World War II. Because the territory remains under Moscow’s sovereignty, Tokyo has refused to join in a peace treaty with Russia.
Some observers say Koizumi’s day trip near the disputed islands was merely an effort to boost his popularity at a time when normalization talks with North Korea have fallen by the wayside.
But government officials claim the trip, which came at a time when Putin was absorbed in what would become Russia’s worst terrorist massacre, in Beslan, was a good opportunity to increase domestic awareness of the territorial dispute and demonstrate Koizumi’s determination to resolve the row in Japan’s favor ahead of Putin’s expected visit early next year.
“A peace treaty with Russia will not be concluded unless the (disputed islands) are returned,” Koizumi told former residents of the islands during his trip. “A shared enthusiasm to resolve the territorial issue will create a better (environment for) negotiations.”
Koizumi also said the four islands do not necessarily have to be returned at once, as long as Russia recognizes Japan’s sovereignty over all of the territory, which Moscow to date has flatly refused to do.
Shigeki Hakamada, a professor of international politics at Aoyama Gakuin University, said Koizumi’s trip was a good idea in that it sent the message to Moscow that the dispute still remains a key pillar of Japan’s diplomatic agenda with Russia.
Hakamada, an expert on Japan-Russia relations, noted that over the past few years Tokyo has given Moscow the wrong impression that it has shelved the issue and shifted priority to economic cooperation, specifically in a bid to beat out rival China in winning a Russian oil pipeline deal that would benefit Japan.
“Japan’s basic policy (toward Russia) has been to pursue both economic cooperation and the resolution of the territorial dispute,” he said. “But this has been buried amid the contest to win the pipeline project in the Far East.”
Tokyo has proposed that the pipeline run from Siberia’s Angarsk to Nakhodka, while Beijing is pressuring Moscow to opt for a shorter route connecting Angarsk with Daiqing, China.
Moscow is reportedly wavering between the two options. The Nakhodka route would be more costly for Russia, but oil sent through the pipeline could be sold globally, especially to Japan. The cheaper Daiqing route would limit sales to China.
The shift in emphasis to economic cooperation, including the pipeline project, came after Japan and Russia failed to meet their goal of concluding a peace treaty by the end of 2000.
The goal, which required a resolution to the territorial issue, was stated in a bilateral agreement signed in 1997 in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia.
In 1998, then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto proposed drawing the Japan-Russia border north of the disputed islands but allowing Russia to continue to hold sovereignty over the territory for the time being.
In 2001, then Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori offered a “parallel approach” to discuss the return of the Habomais and Shikotan while negotiating sovereignty of the other two islands.
But talks ground to a halt when Russia dismissed both proposals.
“After we missed the deadline, we had to come up with a different approach on the territorial row,” said a Foreign Ministry official familiar with Russia policy.
The official, who asked not to be named, also said the 2003 Action Plan, which pledged cooperation in fields ranging from the economy and politics to culture, was aimed at giving Russia a glimpse of what Japan could offer if the dispute was resolved.
“The message was: ‘If Russia wants more, it needs to resolve the row,’ ” the official said. “The territorial issue will not make headway in peacetime unless Japan can convince Russia that it is in its national interest to resolve it.”
Although Tokyo claims Putin’s second term offers the best chance to get the islands back, some experts are doubtful.
Kenichi Ito, president of the independent think tank Japan Forum on International Relations, said Putin will not be able to return the islands with Russia on the defensive against Chechen separatists, especially after the Beslan carnage.
He also blamed Tokyo’s “weak-kneed” stance toward Russia for prolonging the dispute.
“The (islands) have not been returned to Japan because the government has abandoned” the option of suspending all economic cooperation until a peace treaty is concluded, Ito argued.
Hakamada of Aoyama Gakuin University also believes Tokyo should take a stronger stance, but at the same time said economic cooperation could still be used to entice Moscow to conclude the treaty.
Japan must try to convince Russia that better bilateral relations are strategically important now that China is growing into a major power, he said.
“To this end, Russia needs to resolve the territorial row.”