The government is considering signing a post-World War II peace treaty with Russia without insisting on Moscow’s recognition of Japanese ownership of four islands at the center of a territorial dispute between the two countries, government sources said Tuesday.
Hoping to make progress on a treaty when President Vladimir Putin visits Japan in December, the government will review its negotiation strategy, aiming to settle the issue with Russia initially by handing over two smaller islands of the four held by Russia off Hokkaido, the sources said.
In the negotiations with Russia, the government plans to use the term “hand over” in relation to Shikotan and the Habomai group, instead of “return,” citing the joint declaration’s terminology.
Japan had previously sought to resolve the issue of the ownership of all four islands and conclude a postwar peace treaty, from the standpoint that the Soviet Union and Russia have occupied the islands without legal grounds since the war.
Russia has continued to stand by the 1956 Japan-Soviet Joint Declaration, which states Moscow will hand over the smaller Shikotan Island and Habomai group of islets after concluding a peace treaty with Japan.
The Japanese government believes that if Tokyo reviews its negotiation strategy and becomes flexible regarding ownership of the islands, it can come to terms with Russia, which has not wavered in its stance that the Soviet Union legitimately acquired all four islands as the result of World War II, the sources said.
Abe and Putin are likely to discuss the decades-old territorial dispute at the summit in Yamaguchi Prefecture on Dec. 15. Under the new approach, the two leaders are expected to agree to continue talks over the fate of the two remaining larger islands, Etorofu and Kunashiri.
The government will finalize the new negotiation strategy after judging whether it will gain support from the public.
According to the sources, Abe in late September told Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and other officials about the new approach.
“Russia thinks that they have fought Japan in the name of justice and proudly acquired the four islands. The victor nation will never alter its historical view,” a Japanese government source said.
In a Diet committee session on Oct. 3, Abe said he will “resolve the issue of the attribution of the four islands and conclude the peace treaty.” He did not refer to whether Japan will seek to agree with Moscow on the recognition of Japan’s ownership of the islands.
The 1993 Tokyo Declaration mentions that a peace treaty should be concluded by resolving the dispute over the ownership of all four islands.
Japan has since said that if the attribution of the islands to the country is confirmed, it is prepared to respond flexibly regarding the timing and manner of their return.
But the negotiations have long stalled due to the two countries’ deep-seated differences over the islands.