After failing to meet the end-of-2000 target for resolving a territorial dispute and signing a peace treaty, Japan and Russia will hold their first summit this year in Russia’s Irkutsk on Sunday, during which Japan hopes to set a future direction for resolving the decades-old row.

But the two governments remain apart on key issues, and a major breakthrough does not seem likely. It is also unclear how far Russian President Vladimir Putin will go in talks with Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who is widely expected to step down as early as next month.

Mori decided to move up the presidential election for the Liberal Democratic Party, which he heads, to as early as April from the originally scheduled September, amid mounting calls for his early resignation not only from the opposition but also from within the ruling bloc.

The Irkutsk summit is designed to wrap up the bilateral negotiations over the territorial row through the end of 2000, the now expired target set in 1997 during an informal summit between then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and then Russian President Boris Yeltsin in Krasnoyarsk, eastern Siberia.

Japan and Russia have not signed the World War II peace treaty, with both claiming sovereignty over Kunashiri, Etorofu, Shikotan and the Habomai islets off Hokkaido, which were seized by Soviet troops at the end of the war.

“We must explain to both the Japanese and Russian people what we have done through the end of 2000 and what has been the outcome of that process,” a senior Foreign Ministry official said. “We must also show what we will do from now on.”

Japan and Russia are expected to confirm the validity of all past agreements regarding the territorial dispute in a joint declaration to be issued after the meeting.

For instance, the two countries are expected to confirm the validity in writing of the 1993 Tokyo Declaration, which stated that resolving the sovereignty issue over all the disputed islands is necessary for concluding a peace treaty.

Japan is especially keen to see the confirmation of a 1956 pact, which stipulates the return of Shikotan and the Habomai islets to Japan after a peace treaty is signed.

When Putin visited Japan in September, he verbally confirmed the validity of the pact for the first time since Moscow called it invalid in the 1960s. This time, Japan wants to reconfirm it in writing.

By doing so, the government hopes to solidify a legal basis to argue that the sovereignty over Shikotan and the Habomai islets is already resolved under the 1956 pact, and future negotiations should focus on the return of Kunashiri and Etorofu.

“If the Russians start talking about Kunashiri and Etorofu, then we can enter into real negotiations,” the official said. He added, however, that it “is not that easy.”

Russian officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov, have indicated that Moscow considers the possible return of Shikotan and the Habomai islets as the final settlement.

While conceding that the 1956 pact is valid, Russia has also never publicly said that it will actually return Shikotan and the Habomai islets.

Shigeki Hakamada, professor of Russian studies at Aoyama Gakuin University, said Russia would agree to return Shikotan and the Habomai islets if Japan agreed to only seek their return, and not all the disputed islands.

However, Japan maintains that all the islands must eventually be returned, although not necessarily at the same time.

“The government has always held a clear stance that the sovereignty issue over all the disputed islands must be resolved, and we have not changed our stance,” Foreign Minister Yohei Kono said at a recent news conference.

Hakamada, who claims that the 2000 target was “too optimistic” to begin with, said the condition is not ripe for either Russia or Japan to make headway in Sunday’s talks.

“Prime Minister Mori has no political power to negotiate with Russia at this moment,” Hakamada said, citing Mori’s imminent resignation.

Putin, on the other hand, is still trying to strengthen his political standing at home since taking office in May, and is in no position to make any concessions on the territorial issue, he said. “Putin has no intention to have serious talks with Mori.”

Hakamada believes that three conditions must be met for the two countries to resolve the territorial row: strong and stable governments in both countries, trust between the two leaders, and public support among the Russians that it is in their interest to sign a peace treaty with Japan for the sake of getting an economic gain.

None of these conditions exist today, he says.

During Sunday’s meeting, the two leaders are also expected to discuss bilateral economic cooperation and international relations, in an effort not to single out the territorial issue in the bilateral dialogue.

But even on these less contentious economic issues, the two sides are unlikely to agree on any significant cooperation projects because Japanese businesses are reluctant to make risky investments in the still fragile Russian market, Hakamada said.

Over the past year, Japan and Russia have held intensive negotiations, including five Mori-Putin meetings, on top of a number of meetings between high-ranking government officials.

Kono admitted the Krasnoyarsk target “worked as political leverage” to engage Russia in the talks. And he tried, unsuccessfully, to set a new target when he visited Moscow in January.

Prospects are also dim that Japan can succeed in setting a new target at the upcoming summit, and Japanese officials fear that future negotiations will inevitably slow down without a target.

“We don’t know if we can continue (to have negotiations) at the same pace as last year after the Irkutsk talks,” one official said.

“I do believe that Putin thinks it is better to have good relations with Japan, but I don’t know whether that means we can accelerate the talks,” the official said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.