DAVOS, SWITZERLAND – Russia is inviting foreign partners to help it develop fisheries around the disputed islands off Hokkaido and says it will give Tokyo priority, but if it doesn’t jump at the chance, other investors will.
Yuri Trutnev, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Russia’s Far Eastern region, said the offer is part of a broader plan to develop a huge territory rich in resources but poorly developed and lacking infrastructure from roads and labor to communications.
A farming project with China was also proposed.
The dispute over the islands, known as the Kuriles in Russia and the Northern Territories in Japan, have strained relations between the two countries since World War II, when Soviet forces occupied them.
Moscow has angered Tokyo in recent years by having state officials visit the islands, situated seven time zones from the Russian capital, and stepping up military activities there.
“We want to develop the Kuriles at a brisk pace,” Deputy Prime Minister Trutnev said on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos last week.
“The conditions are ideal there for fishing and fish farming. So we are inviting Japanese companies, and are ready to give them priority in joint ventures,” he said.
“But if they turn it down, we will find others who are willing to work with us. And I know that it can be of great interest to other foreign investors,” he said.
Japan has shown no interest in such offers in the past, eschewing any action that would imply Russian sovereignty.
On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida said the idea of another nation pursuing “economic development of the Northern Territories goes against the Japanese position and we cannot accept it.”
But he also said Tokyo is willing to improve ties with Moscow.
Trutnev said Russia, the world’s biggest country by territory and having one of the world’s longest coastlines, is responsible for only 2 percent of global fish farming and should boost this industry by several times.
Trutnev is overseeing some 80 new projects in the Far East as part of Putin’s plan to develop the territory.
Inside Russia, a project that is making waves is a plan for a $10 billion agricultural joint venture with China, which would help farm new territories.
Many Russians disapprove of any encroachment by China, with its appetite for natural resources, on a Russian Far East rich in reserves from timber and water to gas and minerals. Some fear the territories could in the course of time be lost to Moscow’s control.
Trutnev said he understood the project was facing some opposition in Russia.
“But to live in harmony you need to cooperate,” he said. “The lack of cooperation only leads to higher risks. We need to put together very concrete terms — how much land can be farmed, the quality of soil, what will be planted.”
He said Chinese investors would have to make sure 80 percent of the workforce were Russians, and that many top managers would also be Russian.
China would benefit by boosting its food security while Russia would develop new territories and create new jobs. A recent steep ruble devaluation as a result of low oil prices has made many projects cheaper for foreign investors, Trutnev said.
“There is no other place on the planet with such a huge and sparsely populated territory. . . . China has significant water supply problems, while we possess 37 percent of water resources of the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.