Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed Oct. 7 on the sidelines of the APEC leaders’ meeting in Bali to continue to hold bilateral consultations on how to advance bilateral talks on the sovereignty issue concerning the Northern Territories, the four islands off Hokkaido that have been occupied by Russia since the end of World War II.
The two leaders have held talks four times since Mr. Abe visited Moscow in April. As the relationship between the two leaders appears to be deepening, Japan needs to develop a long-term, workable strategy that will help bring Japan the maximum possible gains in the negotiations on the territorial issue.
At the April meeting, Mr. Abe and Mr. Putin issued a joint statement, the first since a January 2003 joint statement issued by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Mr. Putin. Mr. Abe and Mr. Putin agreed to accelerate negotiations on working out a solution acceptable to both sides over the territorial issue. They told a news conference that they would restart negotiations on the issue.
In August, Japan and Russia held a meeting at the level of administrative vice foreign ministers. And at their September meeting in St. Petersburg, the Japanese and Russian leaders agreed to hold a meeting between the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers on Nov. 1 and 2 — the first such meeting between the two countries.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry hopes that the planned meeting will help promote cooperation and build mutual trust in fields such as trade, energy, business tie-ups and security, thus contributing to a better foundation for the next meeting at the level of administrative vice foreign ministers to discuss the territorial issue.
Japan must recognize the fact that the gap between the two countries over the issue is great. Japan demands that Russia return all four islands to Japan, but Russia shows no inclination to do so. In November 2010, then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev visited Kunashiri Island — the first trip by a Russian leader to the Northern Territories. The visit indicated Russia’s hard stance on the territorial issue. It is pushing the Russianization of the four islands by rapidly improving infrastructure there.
In March 2012, Mr. Putin called for “hikiwake,” a phrase in judo meaning “a draw,” to resolve the territorial row. But he has not made clear whether he is ready to go beyond Russia’s position expressed in the Japan-Russia joint declaration of 1956, when Moscow said that it would hand over Shikotan Island and the Habomai islets — two of the four occupied islands — to Japan after a peace treaty was signed. Tokyo then began to insist on the return of all four islands under the premise that they legally belong to Japan. It still maintains that position, although it says that it will be flexible over the timing and method of returning of the four islands.
Japan must figure out a way to bridge the wide gap between it and Russia over the territorial issue. To this end, it should make strenuous efforts in this direction by utilizing a series of meetings with Russia that involve various levels of the two governments.