Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday visited Kunashiri Island, one of four islands known collectively as the Northern Territories whose sovereignty is disputed by Japan and Russia.
He first tried to land on Etorofu Island, another disputed island, but could not do so because of thick fog. In November 2010, Mr. Medvedev, then president, visited Kunashiri becoming the first Russian head of state to visit the Northern Territories.
Mr. Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri runs counter to an agreement between Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 18 during the Group of 20 summit in Los Cabos, Mexico, that Japan and Russian will “reactivate talks” on the long-standing territorial dispute in a quiet atmosphere.
On Tuesday, Mr. Medvedev not only stated that the four islands were “a very important part of Sakhalin and of the whole Russia,” but also claimed: “They have been our land since ancient times. We will not give even an inch of the land.”
The Japanese government correctly responded by summoning Russia’s ambassador to Tokyo, Mr. Evgeny Afnasiev, and lodging a protest over the visit.
Russia is apparently trying to use the visit to Kunashiri to emphasize its effective rule over the Northern Territories. Mr. Medvedev was accompanied by a delegation including Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets, Russia’s Far East envoy Mr. Viktor Ishaev and Regional Development Minister Oleg Govorun.
Moscow’s likely message is that it wants to settle the territorial issue in accordance with the 1956 Japan-Russia joint statement, in which Russia said that it will hand over Shikotan Island and the Habomai islets to Japan. Japan demands that Russia give up all four islands — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets.
Japan should not be swayed by every move of a Russian leader. Instead, it should take a firm stance over the territorial issue.
This month Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba is scheduled to visit Moscow. He should not only make clear Japan’s stance but also try to find out Russia’s intentions. Japan must exhibit patience in dealing with this issue.
In September, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit will be held in Vladivostok.
Mr. Noda and Mr. Putin have agreed to cooperate on the construction of a liquefied natural gas plant in Vladivostok and on the Sakhalin-3 project to develop oil and natural gas.
Although it is clear that Mr. Putin approved Mr. Medvedev’s visit to Kunashiri, Japan should not be provoked by such moves. Instead, it should carefully and calmly analyze Russia’s intentions and the international environment, and use this information to create a strong foundation for the bilateral talks.