Aso-Medvedev summit expected to sidestep isles

Economics to trump territorial dispute at plant-opening talks

by Jun Hongo

Economic priorities are expected to outweigh territorial gripes when the leaders of Japan and Russia hold a summit Wednesday at the launch of a gas plant on Sakhalin Island.

But while amicable relations raise hopes, worries are also being voiced that economic concerns will hamper Japan as it tries to negotiate on its No. 1 priority — return of the Russia-held islands off Hokkaido.

“It’s important to talk about the global economic turmoil. But if we go too deep into that, we will run out of time,” a Foreign Ministry official said of Prime Minister Taro Aso’s summit with President Dmitry Medvedev.

“We seek the return of the four islands. That is the final word,” he added.

Aso’s visit to Russia will be historic even without a breakthrough accord on the islands. He’ll be the first Japanese prime minister to set foot on Sakhalin, the southern half of which was under Japanese control until the end of World War II.

The Sakhalin-2 natural gas plant, set to begin exporting Wednesday, is scheduled to ship about 60 percent of its product to Japan. Aso and Medvedev will be the only heads of state attending the plant’s startup.

Ties with Russia are expected to expand because Aso apparently plans to meet Medvedev again during an April economic summit in London, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is preparing a visit to Japan this spring.

“It is good that two heads of state exchange opinions frequently,” said Hiroshi Kimura, a professor emeritus at Hokkaido University and an expert on Russia.

“But the meeting’s achievements will probably not go beyond that,” Kimura said, adding that cooperation based on economic needs will trump the territorial dispute.

The row over the isles reached a new height last month when Russian authorities demanded that the people aboard a Japanese ship on a humanitarian assistance mission submit disembarkation cards prior to setting foot on one of the islands. When the delegation refused to comply — such an act would have been considered tantamount to officially recognizing Russia’s sovereignty over the islands — the vessel had to turn back.

The ship was carrying ¥12.8 million worth of medical aid at the request of Russian residents on the islands.

Moscow has argued that a 2006 law revision required submission of the cards, but Tokyo rejected filing them due to concerns that this would effectively acknowledge the islands as Russian territory.

The Foreign Ministry said it will cancel the assistance mission, and proposals from both sides to resolve the issue remain far apart. A ministry official said last week that the disembarkation card request came out of the blue and no agreement has been reached on how to handle the issue.

“There still is a wide gap in our opinions. But we can’t cross the line” and turn in the cards, the official said. If no agreements are reached by Wednesday, Aso may have to spoil the launch of the gas plant and bring up the issue during his meeting with Medvedev, the official added.

Hokkaido University’s Kimura said there could be progress at the summit over the disembarkation cards. Russia could drop the demand as a goodwill gesture in exchange for further economic cooperation, he said.

“The disembarkation card could be used as a political ploy” to give Aso the false impression that he made progress on the island dispute, Kimura warned.

“Aso won’t score any points on this trip, especially on the island issue. It’s probably better for him if he just canceled the visit,” he said.