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China’s growing economic and military might may pose a threat to Japan, but it also works in Tokyo’s favor when it comes to settling a long-standing territorial dispute with Russia, a former high-ranking diplomat told a recent symposium in Tokyo.

Kazuhiko Togo, who used to be in charge of negotiations over four Russian-held islands off Hokkaido that Japan wants back, said China’s growing regional presence is also a threat to Russia, which is therefore seeking to bolster its diplomatic power by improving ties with neighboring nations.

Tokyo should strike while the iron is hot and finally settle the territorial row with Moscow, Togo told the symposium on Russo-Japanese relations.

“The most important element for breaking a territorial stalemate is the international situation. . . . (In that respect), I believe the chance to settle the dispute is still there,” Togo said, urging Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s government to make full-fledged efforts to conclude an agreement with Moscow within the next year.

During the symposium, hosted by the Japan-Eurasia Society last Saturday, Togo and two other experts exchanged views on how to end the dispute, which has prevented Japan and Russia from concluding a peace treaty to formally end wartime hostilities.

The islands of Shikotan, Kunashiri and Etorofu and the Habomai islet group were seized by the Soviet Union at the end of World War II, after Japan announced its surrender.

A 1956 joint declaration signed by Japan and the Soviet Union stipulates that Shikotan and the Habomai islets will be returned after a peace treaty is formalized. But as Japan maintains the position that all four isles should be returned together, the two sides have spent about six decades arguing over the issue.

Criticizing past Japanese governments for failing to capitalize on previous opportunities, for example between 1991 and 1993, when Russia’s power was at its lowest ebb after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Togo said Japan’s position has weakened over time.

“The return of all four islands together is no longer a possibility,” he said.

The only realistic solution, according to Togo, is what he called a “two-plus-alpha” option, under which Shikotan and the Habomais would be returned to Japan’s jurisdiction while the territorial status Etorofu and Kunashiri would be shelved for the time. However, the two islands would be designated as a special zone in which both countries could conduct business activities.

Togo and Alexander Panov, a former Russian ambassador to Japan, published a report in July in a Russian newspaper proposing this solution.

“(I wanted to) stimulate the climate a little bit by proposing such a detailed plan,” Togo said, criticizing the Liberal Democratic Party-led government for moving so slowly after Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in April to revive the sovereignty negotiations. Putin is expected to visit Tokyo next year.

“Japan missed opportunities to get the islands back when its power was at its strongest. While Russia’s clout has grown, that of Japan has declined. . . . Time did not work in Japan’s favor,” Togo said. “To my mind, the ‘alpha’ element has shrunk over time and is now very small.”

Andrei Kravtsevich, a professor at Hosei University in Tokyo who specializes in Russo-Japanese ties, concurred with Togo’s proposed method of resolution.

“Will Russia give a nod to a two-plus-alpha solution? I think it is possible. But (Kunashiri and Etorofu’s) sovereignty is non-negotiable,” Kravtsevich said.

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