Navigating a territorial dispute

Following Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 18 in Los Cabos, Mexico, prior to the Group of 20 summit, the Foreign Ministry announced that they agreed to “reactivate” talks on the long-standing territorial dispute over four islands off Hokkaido known in Japan as the Northern Territories. Developments since the meeting show that the road leading to a breakthrough in the dispute is strewn with obstacles and extremely difficult. For example, it has since been learned that neither Mr. Noda nor Mr. Putin used the word “reactivate” — meaning the Foreign Ministry misled the media and the public.

Japan should discard any wishful thinking that progress will be achieved on the territorial issue simply because Mr. Putin had expressed a strong desire to improve bilateral relations before he started his third term as president in May. Instead, Japan should overhaul its strategy on how to deal with Russia on the issue.

On July 3, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev visited Kunashiri, one of the disputed islands. As president he made a similar visit in November 2010, which made him the first Russian head of state to visit the disputed territories.

In a meeting on July 28 with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Sochi, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba lodged a protest over Mr. Medvedev’s Kunashiri visit. But Mr. Lavrov said at a news conference that Russia will not “accept” the protest and that top Russian officials will not refrain from visiting the islands. He also said that such a protest will not contribute to creating the environment necessary for constructive talks on the territorial issue.

Several positive outcomes from the meeting include an agreement to continue talks on the dispute at three levels — national leaders, foreign ministers and deputy foreign ministers. It was also agreed that the two countries will cooperate to create a “quiet environment” for talks on the territorial issue. The foreign ministers also agreed to cooperate in the fields of security and defense, and to push economic cooperation, including the development of energy resources. Mr. Genba also met with Mr. Putin and they agreed to continue talks to work out a solution to the territorial issue that would be acceptable to both parties.

Japan needs to consider ways in which cooperation in various fields will produce maximum mutual benefits. It should also consider how Japan and Russian can jointly cope with China, which is trying to increase its influence in the region. It will be difficult for Japan to gain concessions from Russia on the territorial issue without first establishing mutually beneficial and trustworthy ties in the realm of trade and other matters.