Putin says ownership of Japan-claimed islands remains subject to future talks despite 1956 agreement

Kyodo

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday the sovereignty of two islands set under a 1956 agreement to be transferred to Japan on the conclusion of a peace treaty is still subject to future negotiations.

A day after holding talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Singapore, Putin noted that the 62-year-old joint declaration, which will serve as the basis for the forthcoming talks, does not explicitly specify the islands’ sovereignty.

The declaration “does not say on what grounds and whose sovereignty they will fall under,” Putin was quoted as saying in Singapore by Russia’s Interfax news agency. “This is the issue to be scrutinized.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said at a news conference Friday that if the two islands were to be transferred to Japan, “Japanese sovereignty (over these islands) would also be confirmed for certain.”

Asked by reporters whether Japan will seek to reach a broad agreement on a peace treaty when the two sides attend the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires from Nov. 30, Suga only said that Abe will visit Russia possibly early next year before asking Putin to come to Japan in the future.

“It has been confirmed that the two leaders will put an end to this (absence of a peace treaty) without putting it off for future generations to deal with,” Suga said.

Putin has acknowledged the legal validity of the 1956 declaration. But his remarks indicate it will not be easy for Japan to realize the return of Shikotan and the Habomai islet group as stated in the document, even though Abe has apparently altered Tokyo’s approach to the territorial issue to one that focuses on first regaining control over them, and has agreed to step up talks on the treaty.

In the document, which was intended to restore diplomatic ties, Moscow agreed to hand over the islet group to Tokyo once a peace treaty is concluded. Putin said the revival of talks based on the declaration, signed by the Soviet Union and Japan in October 1956, came at the request of Abe.

Speaking at a news conference in the northern Australian port city of Darwin, Abe said Wednesday’s agreement to accelerate talks based on the declaration would “not contradict” Tokyo’s long-standing policy of resolving the issue of the status of the four islands before signing a peace treaty.

His comments suggest that even if Japan and Russia agree on the return of Shikotan and the Habomai islet group, Tokyo intends to continue negotiations over the two other disputed islands — Kunashiri and Etorofu — and conclude the treaty.

“Under the leadership of me and President Putin, I’m determined to complete peace treaty negotiations, an issue of concern that has been left after the end of the war,” the prime minister said in reference to World War II.

Abe has been promoting joint economic activities on the Russia-held, Japan-claimed islands in the hopes of achieving a breakthrough in the dispute, which has prevented the two countries from signing a postwar peace treaty. The former Soviet Union seized the islands off east Hokkaido following Japan’s surrender in World War II in 1945. They are known as the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia.

Japan’s fresh focus on the 1956 joint accord has led to the view that Tokyo will first seek the return of Shikotan and the Habomai islet group. That is a departure from its traditional position of seeking to regain control of all four islands, including Etorofu and Kunashiri.

Still, Suga dismissed such an interpretation Thursday in Tokyo, saying that the government’s position has not changed. “We have maintained our policy of dealing flexibly with the timing and conditions for the return (of the islands),” the top government spokesman said.

The latest agreement was reached in the 23rd summit between Abe and Putin, which took place on the sidelines of annual meetings involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and major countries in the Asia-Pacific region. At least three more face-to-face meetings between the Japanese and Russian leaders are scheduled at present to move the negotiations forward.

Abe plans to meet again with Putin on the fringes of a Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires from Nov. 30, and arrangements are being made for his visit to Russia in late January, according to a Japanese government source. Abe is also exploring substantive discussions with Putin when Japan hosts the G-20 summit in Osaka in June next year. Numerous rounds of talks and several joint declarations have failed to bring the territorial dispute to a resolution.

In 1993, then-Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to conclude a peace treaty by resolving the dispute over the four islands, in the Tokyo Declaration. The same stance was confirmed in 2001