VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Kyodo) Russian and Chinese companies agreed earlier this month to launch a joint venture to farm sea cucumbers off one of the Russian-held islands claimed by Japan, one of the participants said Tuesday.

The first revelation of business activity by a company from a third country on the disputed islands just off Hokkaido quickly drew criticism from Japanese officials.

“It’s my understanding that the report has not been confirmed, but if it is true, that’s incompatible with our country’s position,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters.

Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara told a news conference that Japan’s position that the islands are Japanese territory remains unchanged.

The government believes that Japanese acceptance of third-country investment in the islands would effectively mean recognizing Russian control of them and would encourage what it describes as an unlawful occupation.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu indicated that Beijing had nothing to do with the business deal. “We don’t know anything at all,” Ma said.

A memorandum of understanding was signed between a company based on Kunashiri Island and a firm in Dalian, China, according to the Russian company’s president. He said the deal was first proposed by the Chinese side for export to China.

The joint venture will get under way in earnest in April after an environmental assessment has been conducted, he said. Sea cucumbers fetch high prices in China.

If the venture goes ahead, Tokyo and Moscow are likely to face another hurdle toward signing a post-World War II peace treaty.

The deal came after Russian President Dmitry Medvedev inspected a seafood processing factory on Kunashiri in November.

Senior Russian officials followed suit with their own visits to the area, where the Russian government has gone ahead with infrastructure projects and has shown more willingness to bring in foreign businesses.

The Russian company’s president indicated that more companies from third-party countries may follow suit.

“Not just Chinese but South Korean companies, in particular, are highly interested in investing” in the islands, he said.

“Their willingness to invest has not been confined to the seafood field,” he said.

His company previously considered joining hands with a seafood company in Hokkaido.

The islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai islet group were seized by the Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender in World War II on Aug. 15, 1945.

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