Japan and Russia on Monday agreed to seek new ways to resolve territorial disputes by the end of this year, now that it appears unlikely the row over a group of islands off Hokkaido will be resolved in time to conclude a bilateral peace treaty this year as planned.
In vice-ministerial talks held in Tokyo, the two countries agreed that Foreign Minister Yohei Kono would visit Russia for four days beginning Nov. 1 to hold talks with his counterpart, Igor Ivanov, a Foreign Ministry official said.
They also agreed that Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Russian President Vladimir Putin would meet in Brunei in mid-November during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum meeting, the official said.
The vice-ministerial talks were held to pave the way for Kono and Mori’s visits in an effort to seek ways to conclude a peace treaty at the earliest possible time.
The two countries agreed in 1997 in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, to try to end the territorial row and sign a peace treaty by the end of 2000. The islands in dispute are Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets, which were seized by Soviet troops at the end of the World War II.
Putin, in his visit to Japan in September, effectively ruled out the 2000 target, saying the agreement only calls for “utmost efforts” to conclude a peace treaty.
During Monday’s meeting, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Ryozo Kato and his Russian counterpart, Aleksandr Losyukov, the two countries confirmed that a 1956 joint declaration remains in force and that the two countries should conclude a peace treaty by clarifying sovereignty over all of the disputed islands.
The 1956 declaration stipulates that Russia will return Shikotan and Habomai to Japan after a peace treaty is concluded. But in the 1960s, Russia unilaterally called the declaration invalid because of Japan’s entry into a bilateral security treaty with the United States.
Putin, in the September visit, confirmed the validity of the 1956 pact — the first such official confirmation by a Russian leader. His reference to the pact prompted speculation that Japan and Russia might take a two-stage approach to return those two islands first, with an assurance that the remaining two would also eventually be returned.
The Foreign Ministry official flatly denied that the two sides discussed in Monday’s talks the idea of returning Shikotan and Habomai first.
The official declined to give details of what kind of “new approach” the two countries would take after the turn of the year to accelerate the negotiation process.
The two sides left the interpretation of the 1956 pact untouched, only confirming that it is effective and that all the disputed islands are at stake in concluding a peace treaty, the official said.
The Russian side said that two countries should accept that there are only two months left until the year’s end, and that Russia is ready to continue negotiations, the official said.
Japan and Russia have failed to narrow differences over the disputes.
In the September talks, Mori referred to Japan’s proposal made in April 1998 that Russia recognize Japan’s sovereignty over all the disputed islands, and Japan admit Russia’s administration rights until the two sides agree on the timing of return of the islands.
Putin rejected the proposal, and again presented his November 1998 counterproposal that the two countries sign an interim treaty of peace and amity this year and leave the demarcation issue for future negotiations.
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