Back to basics with Russia

Prime Minister Naoto Kan met with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on May 27 in the French seaside resort of Deauville shortly after a two-day Group of Eight summit held there. No substantive development came out of the meeting concerning a long-standing bilateral territorial dispute, except that Mr. Kan and Mr. Medvedev agreed to continue to discuss the issue.

Mr. Kan told a news conference that he and the Russian president agreed that talks on the territorial issue should be continued in a calm environment.

In the meeting, Mr. Kan expressed his regret that since Mr. Medvedev’s Nov. 1 visit to Kunashiri Island — one of the four islands off Hokkaido claimed by Japan and held by Russia — Russian high-ranking officials have continued to visit what Japan calls the Northern Territories. With his Kunashiri visit, Mr. Medvedev became the first leader of the Soviet Union or Russia to set foot on any of the disputed islands.

Shortly after the Kunashiri visit, Mr. Kan talked with Mr. Medvedev during a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Yokohama and protested the island visit.

On Feb. 7, Northern Territories Day, Mr. Kan denounced Mr. Medvedev’s Kunashiri visit as an “unforgivable outrage.”

The phrase “a calm environment” has been used frequently since Japanese and Russian foreign ministers met during the APEC meeting. Japan must consider what the Russia is trying to achieve through talks in a calm environment and how Japan should advance its position through such talks.

Moves and rhetoric on Japan’s part may have hardened Russia’s attitude. In May 2009, then Prime Minister Taro Aso told the Upper House’s Budget Committee that “the illegal occupation of the Northern Islands by Russia is extremely regrettable.” In July 2009, Japan enacted a revised special law for promoting a solution to the territory dispute. It clearly said that the Northern Territories are an integral part of Japan. In November that year, the Cabinet adopted a written answer to a lawmaker’s question, stating that the islands are illegally occupied by Russia.

But serious attention must be paid to what Russia did in 2010 and thereafter. In July 2010, Mr. Medvedev signed into law a bill designating Sept. 2 as “the anniversary of the end of World War II.” The law effectively commemorates the Soviet Union’s victory over Japan. Tokyo signed a surrender document on Sept. 2, 1945, aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Russia is pushing the buildup of its military as well as economic development in the disputed islands to consolidate its effective rule there. Russia’s new military doctrine adopted in early February 2010 lists “territorial claims against the Russian Federation and its allies and interference in their internal affairs” as one of the “main external military dangers” to Russia.

In a joint statement in September 2010, marking the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II, Mr. Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed that Russia and China support each other’s core interests in matters related to their sovereignty and territorial integrity. Thus China may actively support Russia’s intentions regarding the Northern Territories.

Immediately after the massive earthquake and tsunami devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, Russia sent a search and rescue team and decided to increase energy supplies to Japan. In March and April, no Russian high-ranking officials visited the disputed islands.

But on May 15, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov and four other Russian Cabinet members visited Kunashiri and Etorofu, another of the four disputed islands.

On May 24, three South Korean opposition parliament members visited Kunashiri with Russian visas to “study” Russia’s effective rule over the disputed islands. Japan has a territorial dispute with South Korea over the Takeshima Islets in the Sea of Japan. (South Korea effectively rules the islets.) Japan strongly protested to South Korea over the lawmakers’ visit to Kunashiri.

These developments show that the situation surrounding the territorial issue has become difficult for Japan.

At this stage, Japan should consider how it can take advantage of other agreements reached in Mr. Kan’s meeting with Mr. Medvedev as a means of strengthening the foundation for talks on the territorial dispute. Both leaders agreed to:

? Launch medium- and long-term talks on possible joint development of oil and natural gas.

? Push working group discussions on Russia’s proposal to double its crude oil supply to Japan.

? Let Russian experts help Japan deal with the nuclear accidents at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant by sharing Russia’s experience and knowledge gained after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accidents.

? Promote exchanges of youths, including helping Japanese children from areas hit by the March 11 disasters to recuperate from psychological problems through visits to Russia.

In the absence of strong leverage, Japan should return to basics in negotiations with Russia. It should correct accurate information and build mutually trustful personal relations with Russian officials in earnest.

This approach applies to negotiations with any country. Though it seems a roundabout way, it is the surest way to move negotiations forward. Japan should also actively promote grass-roots level exchanges with Russia to nurture a better atmosphere in the bilateral relations.