National / Politics

Russian foreign minister hints at possible deal over joint activities on disputed isles off Hokkaido

Kyodo

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov signaled the possibility of an agreement on proposed joint economic activities on a group of Moscow-held islands claimed by Japan, while repeating its position that the projects should be conducted under Russian legislation.

“The cornerstone should be set not on obsession with the legal side of the matter but primarily joint economic activity. This is the essence,” Lavrov said in a recent group interview by media organizations ahead of his visit to Japan next week.

In May, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Russia to discuss the potential cooperation on the islands, called the Northern Territories in Japan and the Southern Kurils in Russia, after the two leaders agreed to launch talks about the initiative in December 2016.

Japan hopes that conducting the activities could lead to an eventual settlement of the territorial row, which has prevented the countries from signing a postwar peace treaty. Russia hopes to attract business investment on the islands as part of efforts to develop the region.

In moving forward with the projects, Japan is placing a priority on working out a special system that would not compromise its legal position regarding the sovereignty of the isles.

But Lavrov said, “We really do not see the need to create any supranational body. Once again I say, there is the current regime, which includes the benefits of the free port of Vladivostok” and other Russian special economic zones under which Japanese businesses can receive preferential treatment.

“We proceed from the fact that the Japanese side will not enter into agreements that will be legally unacceptable to it,” he said.

The disputed islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islet group were seized by Soviet forces at the end of World War II.

While Japan is hoping to strengthen economic ties with Russia to create a favorable environment to resolve the decades-old dispute, Lavrov warned that security issues, such as Japan’s deployment of a U.S.-made, land-based anti-missile system, could be an “irritant” in the bilateral relationship.

“How can we compare the tasks of removing the problems in our relations with the fact that the U.S. missile defense, which is a threat to us, will be in Japanese territory,” Lavrov said.

“Everything that our American colleagues did was convincing us that this global missile defense system is being created not to parry the threats coming from Iran and North Korea, but in order to surround the Russian Federation around this perimeter with the anti-missile system,” he said.

In an effort to dispel Moscow’s concerns, the Tokyo has said that the planned deployment of the Aegis Ashore system, which would increase the nation’s ability to intercept ballistic missiles, will be operated by Tokyo and not pose a threat to Japan-Russia relations.

Such security issues may be addressed at the next round of so-called two-plus-two talks between the two countries’ foreign and defense ministers. Lavrov said the talks will be held in Moscow, as the previous round was held in Tokyo in March 2017.

Regarding recent developments on the Korean Peninsula, including agreements for North Korean leader Kim Jon Un to hold bilateral summits with the leaders of South Korea and the United States, Lavrov said, “In every way we wish success to the forthcoming contacts.” At the same time, he said, “It is very difficult for me to judge who is now deciding specifically in which direction to move on the problems of the Korean Peninsula” within the U.S. administration.

“We will look at how the U.S. position is formed; maybe there will be several positions,” Lavrov said. “We study it carefully, because we are no less interested in a peaceful settlement and in avoiding a catastrophic military scenario.”

Lavrov is set to hold talks with Foreign Minister Taro Kono in Tokyo next Wednesday.