Japan lodged a protest over a planned Russian shooting exercise in waters near one of the four islands off Hokkaido that are at the center of a bilateral territorial dispute, the Japanese government said Thursday.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told a news conference the planned exercise, of which Moscow notified Tokyo on Tuesday, is “unacceptable as it would lead to a stronger Russian military presence” on the disputed islands.
Suga added that Japan filed its protest the same day.
The exercise was scheduled to begin Thursday and end April 12, but Japan has yet to confirm whether it has started, according to the Foreign Ministry.
The four islands, known as the Northern Territories in Japan and Southern Kurils in Russia, were seized by the Soviet Union following Japan’s 1945 surrender in World War II. The dispute has prevented Tokyo and Moscow from concluding a postwar peace treaty.
According to the Japanese Foreign Ministry, Moscow told Tokyo the shooting practice would be carried out off the eastern coast of Kunashiri for seven days, excluding the weekend. Russia asked that fishing vessels be warned to keep clear of the area.
Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Akiba lodged the protest with Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov during a meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday.
The practice comes less than a month after Russia undertook a military exercise on Kunashiri and Etorofu — another of the four islands — involving some 500 troops from machine gun and artillery units. For Moscow, the show of force appears to be aimed at gaining leverage in bilateral negotiations over a postwar peace treaty.
“We closely monitor the Russian military’s movements in the Northern Territories on a regular basis,” Suga said.
But he stressed the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will “continue to strive to resolve the territorial issue and sign a peace treaty.”
Tokyo has argued the islands were illegally seized by the Soviet Union following Japan’s 1945 surrender, while Moscow maintains it acquired them as part of the outcome of World War II.
Abe has agreed with Russian President Vladimir Putin to accelerate territorial talks based on a 1956 joint declaration which stipulates the smallest two islands — Shikotan and the Habomai islet group — be transferred to Japan once a peace pact is concluded.