Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed in their recent Tokyo summit to resolve the bilateral territorial dispute over the Northern Territories, stirring mixed reactions in the two countries. Although they agreed to continue peace-treaty talks toward the yearend deadline, the leaders made little progress in solving the issue.

The Japanese government said the results were regrettable, but hardly surprising; the Russian government said they were inevitable; and the Japanese media said they were disappointing. The media expected too much of the summit. They tend to be overoptimistic in analyzing events, unlike academics, who tend to make disinterested, close analyses.

The Tokyo talks focused on the 1997 agreement that was reached at Krasnoyarsk in the Russian Far East by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto and Russian President Boris Yeltsin. Under that agreement, both countries pledged to do their best to solve the territorial dispute and conclude a peace treaty by the end of 2000 on the basis of the 1993 Tokyo declaration. When the Krasnoyarsk agreement was announced, Japanese media were highly optimistic about the possibility of the Northern Territories’ reversion to Japan in late 2000.

The Tokyo declaration called on Japan and Russia to solve the territorial issue of the four islands. Most Japanese media said the declaration meant Russia would return the territories to Japan, while Russian officials said a solution of the territorial issue did not necessarily mean a reversion of the islands.

Since the Japanese media were ecstatic over the Krasnoyarsk agreement, the Japanese government held a special briefing to cool the hype.

A solution of the territorial issue means a decision on which country will have sovereignty over the territories, but does not necessarily guarantee their reversion. In strict terms, the Krasnoyarsk agreement obligated Japan and Russia “to do their best” to solve the territorial issue and conclude a peace treaty. A cool analysis of the recent Tokyo talks should show that Japanese and Russian leaders “did their best” to solve the pending problems but failed to produce tangible results.

I believe that the Krasnoyarsk agreement would not have been reached if it had obligated the two countries to solve the territorial dispute and conclude a peace treaty by the end of 2000.

From the beginning, some Japanese officials were cautious about setting a specific deadline for Russia to settle the problems. During the Hashimoto-Yeltsin years, there were two important events in a series of moves to improve bilateral relations.

First, the Denver summit of the Group of Eight nations, including Russia, was realized in June 1997 through Japan’s policy reversal. Until then Japan had objected to Russia’s participation in a summit of major countries, on grounds that the bilateral territorial dispute was still unsettled. The Hashimoto administration changed its policy, agreeing to Russia’s participation on condition that Moscow deal positively with the territorial issue.

Yeltsin, obviously pleased with Japan’s policy change, promised to support Japan’s quest for a permanent membership in the U.N. Security Council. Thus, a Hashimoto-Yeltsin deal paved the way for progress in the bilateral territorial negotiations.

Second, one month after the Denver summit, Hashimoto made important remarks in a speech on diplomacy toward Eurasia to the Japanese Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai) in Tokyo. The prepared text of his speech read, “The time has come to solve the territorial issue,” but Hashimoto, deviating from the text, actually said, “The time has come to establish a course of action leading to the solution of the territorial issue.” He feared that Russia might disagree with the proposal in the prepared text, and so he sugarcoated the idea. Japanese officials were apparently aware that the territorial issue might not be solved by the end of 2000.

Neither the Tokyo declaration nor the Krasnoyarsk agreement used the word “reversion.” The word was used in the in the 1956 Japan-Soviet joint declaration, with reference to two of the four islands composing the Northern Territories, Habomai and Shikotan.

Putin reaffirmed the validity of the declaration. Japanese officials, however, are reportedly unsure if they should welcome Putin’s position. If they did, Japan could be forced to accept a settlement that would divide the four islands between Japan and Russia.

Officially, the Japanese government insists on the reversion of all four islands, but does not know if Russia has any intention of returning them. And even if Moscow was willing to return them, circumstances surrounding the Putin administration might make it impossible.

It would be interesting to see how Putin would respond if he were asked what will happen in the remaining months of 2000 regarding the pending issues. I suppose he would say brusquely that he and Mori will do their best to solve the issues during Mori’s scheduled visit to Moscow.

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