The St. Petersburg summit held April 29 between Japan’s new prime minister, Yoshiro Mori, and Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin marked a new stage in bilateral negotiations on signing a peace treaty. The two nations had earlier agreed to settle their territorial dispute on the Northern Territories by the end of this year, and thus be able to conclude the peace treaty and fully normalize relations.

Putin — who assumed the presidency Sunday — promised Mori that he would make a state visit to Japan in late August. It remains to be seen, however, if Japan and Russia will settle their territorial dispute in the remaining months of the year, as the feud has continued for more than 50 years following the end of World War II. Putin and other Russian leaders should realize that it is in Russia’s strategic interest to return the small islands off the Far Eastern region to Japan.

The summiteers addressed each other by their nicknames, with Mori calling Putin “Volodya” and Putin calling Mori “Yoshi.” Personal friendship is especially important in summit diplomacy. I hope that Mori and Putin will hold frequent talks and have frank and friendly exchanges.

The leaders reportedly agreed to respect all agreements reached in the past by the two nations on the territorial issue. Those include the Tokyo Declaration, the Krasnoyarsk agreement and the Moscow Declaration. Putin also agreed to normalize relations with Japan in all respects, by signing the peace treaty. Mori stressed that the two nations should simultaneously promote strategic and geopolitical relations, wide-ranging economic cooperation and negotiations on the peace pact.

Japan, the United States, China and Russia are the four major powers in the Asia-Pacific region, but Japanese-Russian relations are still undeveloped. Mori believes that breaking the stalemate in bilateral relations will help stabilize the region.

Central to the development of Japanese-Russian relations is the 1993 Tokyo Declaration signed by then Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. In the declaration, the two nations agreed to settle the territorial dispute regarding the islands of Etorofu, Kunashiri and Shikotan and the Habomai group of islets in order to conclude a peace treaty early and to normalize their relations.

As the basis of a territorial settlement, the declaration listed:

* historical and legal documents showing the national border between Etorofu and Urupp islands was peacefully established;

* the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration agreeing to establish bilateral diplomatic relations and other documents signed by the two countries; and,

* the principles of law and justice.

In their negotiations, Japan and Russia must adhere to the principles of the Tokyo Declaration.

Japanese-Russian relations reached a turning point in 1997, when then Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Yeltsin agreed in their talks in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, that the two countries should do all they could to conclude a peace treaty by 2000.

In April 1998, Hashimoto proposed to Yeltsin in their talks in Kawana, Shizuoka Prefecture, that the Japanese-Russian border be demarcated. Yeltsin, meeting with then Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in Moscow in November of the same year, proposed that the two nations sign a peace treaty while delaying the territorial settlement. Clearly, this would not be a genuine peace treaty.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, while visiting Japan this February, delivered a letter from Putin to Obuchi. The letter reportedly asked Japan to “respond constructively” to Russia’s proposal on the peace treaty. This proposal neglects the Tokyo Declaration. If Mori and Putin agreed to respect all agreements reached by the two nations, as reported, the Tokyo Declaration should be the basis for resumed negotiations.

Putin’s policies are still unclear. In his election pledges, however, he said that a priority task for Russia is the establishment of diplomatic policies based on its national interest. Russia’s diplomacy naturally places importance on relations with the U.S. and Europe. Putin visited Britain last month as the first step to improving relations with Western countries. In June, Putin is expected to receive U.S. President Bill Clinton in Moscow.

Russia recently ratified the START II strategic arms reduction treaty on condition that the U.S. comply with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. That action, intended to thwart the introduction of the U.S. national missile defense program, was another Russian move to promote nuclear disarmament.

On Putin’s diplomatic agenda, relations with Japan are unlikely to have a high priority. I believe it will be some time before the Putin administration establishes a diplomatic policy stance toward Japan.

In Moscow in early April, Putin told Muneo Suzuki, former Prime Minister Obuchi’s special envoy, that he would be willing to visit Tokyo immediately after the Group of Eight summit to be held in Okinawa in July. In the St. Petersburg summit, however, Russia proposed that the visit come around November. Mori finally persuaded Putin to make the visit in late August. All this gives the impression that Putin has yet to formulate definite policies toward Japan. The makeup of a new Putin Cabinet, as well as its relations with the Russian Parliament, needs to be closely watched.

There cannot be a peace treaty without resolving the territorial dispute. We should not fret over the deadline of 2000. If we seek quick results, we will be tricked.

Shunichi Matsumoto, the Japanese ambassador who negotiated the Japan-Soviet joint declaration, wrote in his memoirs that he almost gave up on the negotiations because of difficult international relations and domestic problems. However, he said, Japan overcame those difficulties thanks to the enthusiasm of then Japanese Prime Minister Ichiro Hatoyama. “Diplomacy is synonymous with patience,” Matsumoto said. These words are still valid today, 44 years after the declaration was signed.

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