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Russia’s political stability under the active leadership of President Boris Yeltsin is the most crucial factor in the success of the ongoing talks for a long-pending peace treaty with Japan. The track record of the bilateral negotiations is clear evidence of this. When Mr. Yeltsin was healthy and confident, he acted as an impressive spur to bilateral developments: In November 1997 at Krasnoyarsk, Mr. Yeltsin made a bold proposal to sign a peace treaty before the end of 2000 and in April 1998 at Kawana, he responded positively to former Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s proposal to draw a border.

Those breakthroughs would not have occurred without the Russian leader’s self-confidence and the fortunate meeting of minds between Mr. Hashimoto and Mr. Yeltsin, who has been known for his reluctance to have confidence in other political leaders. Mr. Yeltsin’s failing health, therefore, appears to cast a cloud over the prospects for settling the decades-old bilateral territorial disputes that have carried over from the days of the Soviet Union. The disputed Northern Territories consist of the islands of Kunashiri, Etorofu and Shikotan, and the Habomai group of islets.

Against this backdrop, the working-level talks held in Moscow last week marked the first time that the two committees created to work out a territorial settlement — one on the border issue and the other on the joint economic development of the islands — had met. Both sides agreed to strive for a peace treaty by the end of 2000, but failed to make specific progress.

It is anomalous that the two neighboring nations should still be technically at war more than half a century after the war’s actual end. The absence of a Russo-Japanese peace treaty remains a major obstacle to close and wider exchanges between the two nations. It also stands in the way of regional and international endeavors to promote peace and stability in Asia and the world. The sooner the treaty is signed, the better.

The fact that a peace treaty had eluded the two nations for so long bespeaks the intractable nature of a territorial dispute that goes to the heart of national sovereignty. Much will depend on the work of the two new committees, which were created during a November visit to Moscow by Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi. The border demarcation committee plans to draw up a number of scenarios for settling the sovereignty issue and to work out, under those assumptions, ways of treating the Russians now living on the islands and handling related legal questions. The other committee will explore the possibilities for infrastructure development, such as building power stations and harbors. Such cooperation will help settle the sovereignty issue.

Last week’s meeting will be followed by ministerial exchanges between Foreign Ministers Masahiko Komura and lgor Ivanov in Tokyo and Moscow in February and April. It is already fairly clear what each side wants. Japan’s position was clarified at the April 1998 summit, in which then Prime Minister Hashimoto stated that the four islands in dispute are an integral part of Japanese territory.

Japan maintains that a borderline should be established north of the islands in order to confirm Japanese sovereignty. The nation will not demand an immediate handover, however, but will allow Russia to keep administrative control over the islands for the time being. This represents a major retreat from the previous Japanese demand for an immediate and complete return.

Russia, however, rejected this proposal at the Moscow summit between Mr. Obuchi and Mr. Yeltsin. Russia is insisting that two separate treaties be signed — one stating only a mutual pledge to settle the dispute and the other dealing with more specific questions. Moscow is apparently trying to push economic development, with Japanese assistance, while putting the sovereignty issue on the back burner.

The Russian plan is unacceptable to Japan, which wants to settle the territorial issue before signing a peace treaty. A peace treaty without a territorial settlement will have little meaning for the Japanese who believe that the islands’ reversion is an indispensable condition for peace with Russia. Shelving the islands issue also runs counter to the 1993 Tokyo declaration that says a peace treaty should be concluded as soon as possible by resolving the dispute based on the principles of law and justice.

There is no question, however, that putting Russo-Japanese relations on an even keel by resolving the islands issue will not only serve the interests of the two nations, but also help promote peace and stability in Asia and the rest of the world.

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