National / Politics

Despite perceived progress, Japan and Russia remain far apart in territory dispute


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed last week to accelerate negotiations to conclude a long-pending bilateral peace treaty based on the 1956 Japan-Soviet Union joint declaration. But even the return of the Habomai group and Shikotan, the smallest Russian-held islands at the center of the two countries’ territorial dispute, could be difficult for Japan to achieve, observers said.

The joint declaration stipulates that Shikotan and the Habomai islets will be handed over to Japan following the conclusion of the peace treaty, which would formally end their World War II hostilities.

The Abe-Putin agreement “means that we’re resolved to get back at least the two islands without fail,” a Japanese government source said.

Abe appeared to focus on the return of the two, setting aside for the time being Japan’s ultimate goal of also retaking Etorofu and Kunashiri. The islands were seized by Soviet troops in the closing days of World War II.

The move is believed to reflect Abe’s eagerness to resolve the territorial dispute before his last term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expires in September 2021.

However, a wide gap remains between the two countries’ positions.

At a news conference in Singapore on Thursday, Putin pointed out that the 1956 joint declaration does not clarify the issue of sovereignty over Shikotan and the Habomai group — after their handover to Japan, and therefore that issue will be subject to future negotiations.

The Russian side does not regard the handover of any of the disputed islands as “retrocession,” as it insists that it acquired ownership of them as a result of the war.

Following Putin’s remarks, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said Friday that the return of the islands would naturally confirm Japan’s sovereignty over them.

Victor Kuzminkov, a senior researcher at the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that, for the president, the handover of the islands would not mean abandoning sovereignty.

Kuzminkov also said the return of the islands may not represent the “draw” in the territorial negotiations that Putin mentioned in 2012.

In that scenario, Russia may hand over only one of the disputed islands, if any, he noted.

Vladimir Nelidov, a lecturer at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, or MGIMO-University, said it is not easy for Putin to decide on the handover of the Habomai islets and Shikotan Island, even if they are much smaller in area than the larger islands of Kunashiri and Etorofu.

Such a decision is certain to provoke fierce protests in Russia and undermine public support for Putin’s government, Nelidov suggested.

Meanwhile, the United States is a wild card for the Japan-Russia negotiations, with Putin wary of possible U.S. bases on the islands if and when they are returned to one of Washington’s key Asian allies.

“We have to discuss security issues” in the negotiations, Abe said on television in September. “We’ve finally entered that stage.”

Speaking at the Japan National Press Club on Friday, U.S. Ambassador to Japan William Hagerty declined to comment on speculation about a future U.S. military presence on the islands, saying he is “reluctant to begin speculating on the hypothetical situation.”

In Japan’s political world, the latest Abe-Putin accord drew mixed reactions. “Our predecessors were striving to get the four islands back together, so I hope the negotiations will be headed for that,” Kiyomi Tsujimoto of the main opposition Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan said Thursday.

“The advance return of the two islands may be an option,” Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii said. “But we shouldn’t conclude a peace treaty, which could hinder further territorial claims.”

Former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, chairman of the LDP Policy Research Council, expressed his approval of Abe’s attitude toward the negotiations with Russia. “The most important thing is public opinion,” he said.

“We shouldn’t drift from the course to the return of the four islands,” another former Cabinet minister from the LDP said, echoing the view of politicians from both the ruling and opposition camps.

Abe now needs to tread a fine line in addressing the territorial dispute with Russia under his slogan of summing up Japan’s postwar diplomacy.